LOS ANGELES – Diving boat crew members say they were never instructed in emergency procedures before a pre-burned fire swept through the ship as it was anchored off the coast of Southern California, killing 34 people while sleeping under deck, according to federal documents released Wednesday.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators say the cause of the fire aboard the conception remains undetermined, but a possible ignition point was phones and other electronics plugged into electrical outlets. A crew member told investigators he saw sparks as he plugged in his cell phone hours before the fire.
The boat carried 33 passengers on a Labor Day weekend diving expedition last year. The fire broke out last night when the conception was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, about 40 km south of Santa Barbara, the boat̵
All the passengers and a crew member sleeping under the deck were killed – apparently no one had a chance to escape. The other five crew members, including Captain Jerry Boylan, survived by jumping into the water. They barely escaped after trying in vain to save the others, authorities said. Boylan called up for a mayday at. 3:14 and said, “I can not breathe,” before abandoning the ship.
They got into a nearby boat whose captain continued to ask for help when crew members from Conception returned to search for survivors. It took more than an hour after Boylan’s first Mayday call for the Coast Guard and other boats to arrive. The conception sank just after dawn.
Boylan could face federal homicide counts, and recent court documents say charges are pending. The NTSB has said all six crew members were asleep when the fire broke out, which is a violation of Coast Guard regulations requiring a robbing clock.
Hundreds of pages of documents released by the safety board provide a detailed look at the boat’s final hours on September 2, 2019. It will vote on October 20 on the results of the investigation as well as the probable cause of the fire and any potential recommendations.
Ryan Sims, who had been working on board the boat for just three weeks, told investigators he had asked the captain to discuss contingency plans the day before the fire. Boylan allegedly said to him, “When we have time.”
“I did not know what the procedures were going to be,” Sims said. Other crew members also said they were not familiar with safety procedures.
Sims told investigators he went to bed after seeing sparks when he plugged in his cell phone, and the documents do not show that he reported what he saw. He told investigators that “while still in a sleep-like state, he had heard a pop and then a crackling downstairs” when another crew member shouted, “Fire! Fire!”
Sims, who broke his leg by fleeing the burning boat, has sued the ship’s owners and the company that chartered it, claiming the conception was not seaworthy and worked unsafe.
Families with 32 victims have also filed claims against the boat owners, Glen and Dana Fritzler, and the boat company, Truth Aquatics. In return, Fritzlers and the company have filed a legal claim to protect them from damages under a maritime law that limits the liability of vessel owners. The court’s archive shows that they have offered to settle lawsuits with dozens of victims’ relatives.
Lawyers for the families of the victims, Sims, Boylan and Fritzlers, did not immediately return requests for comment. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles investigating the case declined to comment.
Boylan and Fritzlers, who owned three diving boats, had a good reputation with customers and the Santa Barbara sailing community. The Coast Guard’s records show that the conception had passed its two most recent security inspections.
In 2018, Concepts’ sister boat – the Vision – had a small fire that involved a lithium-ion battery that was charged. A Coast Guard inspection of the vision after the fire of conception found 40 violations, including 11 related to fire safety. It reduced the boat’s capacity overnight to 33 people after determining that its double berths made it difficult for the other person in bed to escape. An inspection only a few months before had found no violations.
Passengers on the 75-foot wooden-hulled conception slept in stacked bunks below the main deck. A staircase at one end of the bunk room led up to the galley, as did a 22-inch x 22-inch escape hatch that lay over an upper bunk and away from the stairs.
NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy noted how difficult it was to reach the hatch when she toured in the vision.
The documents say the conception hatch was typically discussed during security briefings, but passengers were not shown where it was.
Kyle McAvoy, a marine security specialist with Robson Forensic in Philadelphia who is often an expert witness in trials, said the hatch should have been discussed at security briefings, but that it is required to be “fairly clear and obvious” how to open it.
During the interview with Cullen Molitor, the boat’s second captain, investigators repeatedly asked about objects connected to electrical outlets in Conception’s galley.
Molitor said divers connected flashlights, camera equipment, strobe lights and cell phones at night to the fire. He estimated that there were 10 to 20 objects connected on one side and five to 15 on the other, with at least one busbar, though he said he did not know for sure, according to an interview transcript.
The Coast Guard has issued additional safety recommendations following the tragedy, such as limiting the charging of lithium-ion batteries and the use of sockets and extension cords.
Molitor also said there were two smoke detectors in the bunk room and two in the galley, but he heard no alarms after a crew member woke him up. He was not sure if they were paired to sound right away, but said he would expect to hear them from where he slept.
“One thing we never heard was any screaming or shock or anything from the boat, both while we were on it or when we were close,” Molitor said.