25 Dead, 9 Missing After Fire Destroys Charter Scuba Dive Boat
According news reports published by Reuters, the New York Times and the Associated Press, 25 are confirmed to have died after a charter boat was destroyed by fire, and subsequently sank, while anchored off Southern California’s Santa Cruz Island early Monday morning. Nine others are reported to be missing and are presumed to have also been killed in what California authorities are describing as the worst maritime accident in local offshore waters in decades.
Early reports indicate that the boat, the Conception, was on a 3-day scuba diving charter excursion and was anchored in Platt's Harbor, which is located just north of Santa Cruz Island and is part of the Channel Islands National Park. According the ship’s manifest, the Conception was carrying 33 passengers and a crew of 6.
Of the 39 known to have been on board only 5, all crew members, appear to have survived. The Conception, which was registered to Truth Aquatics of Santa Barbara, was described as 75-foot commercial vessel that was primarily used as a recreational scuba-diving platform. In a statement released Monday afternoon, a Coast Guard spokesperson stated that, according to their records, the vessel was “in compliance” as of its last inspection.
Early reports say boat was ablaze “from stem to stern … explosions every few beats”
The disaster appears to have happened quickly. A transcript of a short, panicked, distress call from the Conception reveals that a male voice cried ““Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! … I can’t breathe!” The channel then went silent.
In its coverage of the tragedy, the Times carried an interview with Bob Hansen who, along with his wife Shirley, was sleeping on their fishing boat which was moored several hundred feet from the Conception when they were awakened by the five survivors of the disaster. Mr. Hansen described the survivors as wet, shivering, and wearing only their underwear; apparently having no time to get into swim gear before escaping to a rubber raft that was already in the water next to the Conception
According to Mr. Hansen, when he and his wife stepped onto the deck of their vessel, the Conception was engulfed in flames “from stem to stern.”
“I could see the fire coming through holes on the side of the boat… There were these explosions every few beats. You can’t prepare yourself for that. It was horrendous.”
At daybreak, the smoldering remains of the Conception was still afloat but could not be moved to dockside and sank in an estimated 30 feet of water.
Some victims may have been trapped below deck when fire blocked only exit, others may have drowned after diving overboard to escape flames
While it is far too early to determine what caused the fire that led to the loss of the Conception and 34 lives, the information available suggests that at least some of the victims may have been trapped below deck when a fire that began in the boat’s galley blocked the only exit from the passenger and crew berthing area. We base this presumption on the published descriptions of the fire and the following observations.
A description of the Conception obtained from the Truth Aquatics website indicates that the passengers and crew would have been sleeping below deck in a single large berthing room directly below the boat’s galley. A diagram of this area, also obtained from the Truth Aquatics website, reveals the presence of a “shower room” located forward, a mid-deck sleeping area equipped with double and triple bunk beds, and an unnamed aft area that probably represents the engine room. Access and exit to/from these areas (shower and berthing) is via adjacent stairways that are labeled “Up to Galley.”
Since the Conception was on a 3-day scuba charter we assume that the scuba gear was stowed on deck. We also assume that, since meals were included in the charter, that LP gas was being used to power the ship’s galley. Based on these facts and assumptions, we believe the following represents a plausible accident reconstruction.
In the early morning hours of Monday, September 2nd, a fire broke out in the Conception’s galley. The surviving crew members, who would have been berthed nearest the stairway leading to the galley, attempted to fight the fire but were forced overboard as the flames quickly spread. One crew member, who was the source of the Mayday radio message, was probably trapped in the wheelhouse located forward of the galley and died while attempting to summon help. The galley fire quickly spread and blocked the only exit from the berthing room, trapping at least some the 33 passengers below deck with no hope of escape. The explosions reported by Mr. Hansen were probably caused by the “charged” scuba tanks overheating as the fire spread aft on the main deck. The engine room’s automatic fire suppression system, which is required of all vessels of the Conception’s class, activated and thus allowed the Conception to remain afloat for several hours.
The causes of death for each victim are not known at the time. Although the vessel was reported to have been engulfed in fire when it was first observed, some of the passengers were probably able to make to the vessel’s deck but were forced to abandon ship as the fire spread. Even though the disaster occurred on the last holiday weekend of summer, water temperature may have played a role in some of the fatalities.
According to surf-forecast.com, the average water temperature near Santa Cruz Island for the months of August and September ranges from 57 to 59F. The Coast Guard Auxiliary defines “cold water” as a water temperature of less than 69F. Under “ideal” conditions, an alert swimmer wearing safety gear such as a wet suit and a personal flotation device, a swimmer could expect to survive from 4 to 6 hours in 60F water. However, a swimmer wearing only “civilian” swim wear would probably begin to suffer the effects of hypothermia (weakness, disorientation, and poor judgement) within 30 minutes of entering 60F water and probably would succumb to hypothermia within 2 hours.
Once again, the above represents our “best guess” as to what may have led to the loss of the Conception and, with it, 34 lives. However, our reconstruction and our past experience in dealing with similar accidents suggests that could be several liability issues involving the Conception’s owners that may arise as the official investigation progresses.
At The Doan Law Firm, we will be closely monitoring future developments related to this tragedy and will update our readers and clients as new information becomes available.