LOS ANGELES – Crew on a dive boat said they were never given instructions on emergency procedures before a pre-dawn fire swept through the ship as ‘it was anchored off the southern California coast, killing 34 people as they slept below deck, according to federal documents released Wednesday. .
National Transportation Safety Board investigators say the cause of the fire aboard the Conception remains undetermined, but one possible ignition point was phones and other electronics plugged into outlets. A crew member told investigators he saw sparks when he plugged in his cell phone hours before the fire.
The boat was carrying 33 passengers on a Labor Day weekend scuba diving expedition last year. The fire broke out the last night with the Conception anchored off the island of Santa Cruz, about 40 kilometers south of Santa Barbara, the boat’s home port.
All of the passengers and one crew member sleeping below deck were killed – none apparently had a chance to escape. The other five crew members, including Captain Jerry Boylan, survived by jumping into the water. They barely escaped after unsuccessfully trying to save the others, authorities said. Boylan made a Mayday call at 3:14 am, saying, “I can’t breathe,” before abandoning ship.
They boarded a nearby boat, whose captain continued to call for help as Conception’s crew returned in search of survivors. It took over an hour after Boylan’s first call for the Coast Guard and other boats to arrive. The Conception sank just after dawn.
Boylan could face federal manslaughter charges, and recent court documents indicate that criminal charges are imminent. The NTSB said all six crew members were asleep when the fire broke out, a violation of Coast Guard regulations requiring a traveling watch.
Hundreds of pages of documents released by the safety office provide a detailed look at the boat’s last hours on September 2, 2019. It will vote on October 20 on the findings of the investigation, as well as the probable cause of the fire and on any recommendations.
Ryan Sims, who had been working on the boat for only three weeks, told investigators he asked the captain to discuss contingency plans the day before the fire. Boylan reportedly told him, “When we have time.” ”
“I didn’t know what the procedures were supposed to be,” Sims said. Other crew members also said they were unfamiliar with safety procedures.
Sims told investigators he fell asleep after seeing sparks plugged in his cell phone, and the documents do not indicate that he reported what he saw. He told investigators that “while still in a state of sleep, he heard a pop and then a crackle from below” as another crew member shouted, “Fire! Fire! ”
Sims, who broke his leg escaping the burning boat, sued the owners of the ship and the company that chartered it, alleging that the Conception was not seaworthy and was not functioning in a non-seaworthy manner. safe.
Families of 32 victims have also filed complaints against the boat owners, Glen and Dana Fritzler, and the boat company Truth Aquatics. In turn, the Fritzlers and the company filed a lawsuit to protect them from damage under a maritime law that limits the liability of ship owners. Court records show they have offered to settle lawsuits with dozens of relatives of victims.
Lawyers for the victims’ families, Sims, Boylans and the Fritzlers did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Los Angeles attorney’s office investigating the case declined to comment.
Boylans and the Fritzlers, who owned three dive boats, had a good reputation with customers and the Santa Barbara boating community. Coast Guard records show that Conception passed its last two safety inspections.
In 2018, Conception’s sister ship – the Vision – had a small fire involving a lithium-ion battery being charged. A Coast Guard inspection of the Vision after the Conception fire revealed 40 violations, 11 of which related to fire safety. He reduced the boat’s overnight capacity to 33 people after determining that its double berths prevented the second person in the bed from escaping. An inspection a few months earlier had not revealed any violations.
Passengers on the 23-meter (75-foot) wooden-hulled Design slept in multi-level bunks below the main deck. A staircase at one end of the bunk room led up to the pantry, as did an escape hatch measuring 22 inches by 22 inches (56 centimeters) that was above an upper bunk and out of the way. the stairs.
NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy highlighted how difficult it was to reach the hatch when she visited the Vision.
Documents say the Conception’s escape hatch was generally discussed during safety briefings, but passengers were not shown where it was.
Kyle McAvoy, a marine safety specialist at Robson Forensic in Philadelphia who is often an expert witness in trials, said the hatch should have been discussed during safety briefings, but it should be “Clear and obvious enough” to open it.
Interviewing Cullen Molitor, the ship’s second captain, investigators repeatedly asked about items plugged into the electrical outlets in Conception’s kitchen.
Molitor said divers plugged in flashlights, photographic equipment, strobe lights and cell phones on the night of the blaze. He estimated that there were 10 to 20 elements plugged in on one side and five to 15 on the other, with at least one power strip, although he said he wasn’t sure for sure, according to a transcript. interview.
The Coast Guard issued additional safety recommendations in the aftermath of the tragedy, such as limiting the charging of lithium-ion batteries and the use of power strips and extension cords.
Molitor also said there were two smoke detectors in the bunk room and two in the kitchen, but he did not hear any alarms after a member of the crew woke him up. He wasn’t sure they were connected together to ring at the same time but said he would expect to hear them from where he was sleeping.
“One thing we never heard was screaming or banging or anything from the boat, both while we were on board or when we were close,” Molitor said.
Krisher reported from Detroit.
Stefanie Dazio et Tom Krisher, The Associated Press