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Feature Article: Conception NTSB

NTSB: All crew asleep when Conception fire ignited

BY PAUL LEBOWITZ/WON Staff WriterPublished: Sep 18, 2019

SANTA BARBARA — A preliminary National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report concludes all 6 Conception crew were asleep at the time the fire that engulfed the boat ignited. Thirty-three passengers and 1 crew member who were sleeping below decks perished. The apparent failure to maintain a watch was a violation of U.S. Coast Guard regulations as outlined on the boat’s inspection certificate.

AN INITIAL NTSB report on the Conception disaster which claimed 34 lives concludes all 6 crew were asleep when the fire ignited. The apparent failure to maintain a watch was a violation of U.S. Coast Guard regulations as outlined on the boat’s inspection certificate. Ventura County Fire Department Photo

The NTSB conclusion was based on interviews with 3 of the 5 surviving crew, all of whom were asleep on the wheelhouse level. Those interviews determined no mechanical or electrical issues were reported prior to the deadly fire.

At the time of the fire, the Conception was anchored in Platts Harbor on the north side of Santa Cruz Island. A crewman sleeping in the wheelhouse berths was awakened by a noise and got up to investigate, the NTSB report states. He saw a fire at the aft end of the sun deck, rising up from the salon compartment below. The crew­-member alerted the crew behind the wheelhouse. As crew awoke, the captain radioed a distress message to the Coast Guard.

The crew members on the wheelhouse level were forced to jump down to the main level, and in the process one broke his leg, the report continues. They then tried to access the salon and galley compartment, which was fully engulfed by fire at the aft end and thick smoke in the forward end, through a forward window but were unable. They then jumped overboard.

The NTSB report further states two crewmembers and the captain swam to the stern, reboarded the vessel, opened the hatch to the engine room, and saw no fire. Access to the salon through the aft doors was blocked by fire, so they launched a small skiff and picked up the remaining two crewmembers in the water. They transferred to a recreational vessel anchored nearby (Grape Escape) where the captain continued to radio for help, while two crewmembers returned to the Conception to search for survivors around the burning hull. Local Coast Guard and fire departments arrived on scene to extinguish the fire and conduct search and rescue. The vessel burned to the waterline by morning and subsequently sank in about 60 feet of water.

The 75-foot Conception was a dive boat operated by Truth Aquatics out of Santa Barbara. The maritime disaster was the most deadly in modern Cali­fornia history. The wreck has been moved to a U.S. Navy base in Port Hueneme as the investigation continues.

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