Californian Dive Boat Fatal Fire

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Californian Dive Boat Fatal Fire

September 08, 2019 - 20:04
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Just as Labor Day broke on Monday 2 September 2019, the US Coast Guard issued the following tweet at 04.48 (local time). "BREAKING NEWS: The Coast Guard has launched multiple rescue assets along with assets from local agencies to assist more than 30 people in distress on a 75ft [22.8mt] boat near Santa Cruz Island. More details will be available as this operation continues."

There has been a plethora of mis-information and wild conjecture by the mainstream media and on social media by divers. Rumours fly and add to the confusion. This should bring some clarity to this devastating incident.

We now know that the vessel was the 'Conception', and she was part of the award winning liveaboard fleet. The Truth Aquatics boats are custom designed and built specifically for scuba diving. The ships are not previously used, converted vessels.

Codes of Practice

Vessels at sea are governed by long-established maritime laws. These rules cover everything including the maximum number of passengers that are allowed to carried. This boat, like all boats that are chartered or used for commercial gain, must adhere and comply with certain survey, manning, competence and safety compliance certificates and Codes of Practice. In addition the further a boat operates from a safe haven / land, the more risk it is exposed to, hence it will need to comply with additional codes such as lifesaving apparatus and electronics. The boat will be fitted out and equipped to a set standard, and this will be regularly checked by the skipper and the authorities. The boat will be told what category it is and this affects how far the boat can operate from land.

In the UK there are seven area categories a similiar boat could be coded to, for example “to sea, within 20 miles from a nominated departure point named in the certificate in favourable weather and daylight” or “up to 60 miles from a safe haven”. The US Coast Guard has four route limits. 3 miles, 20 miles, 100 miles and 200 miles. The USA take their measurement from land, not a safe haven. It is likely the Conception had a 100 mile route limit, but at the time of writing this I do not have confirmation of that fact.

The Conception had been in full compliance with Coast Guard regulations, officials said. Source: huffpost.com

Operating procedures will be put in place to ensure that safety and maintenance checks are frequently carried out, and the boat, crew and paperwork will be periodically inspected by the authorities. This will include stringent physical checks on the equipment and condition of the vessel and an out-of-water inspection. Because the Conception was launched in 1981 she will have been inspected several times by marine safety professionals.

It is quite possible that a professional inspection of a vessel will reveal a safety violation. Responsible owners get these fixed in a timely manner. The mainstream media has reported that inspection records show that Truth Aquatics promptly corrected safety deficiencies when pointed out during previous inspections over the years. In 2009 emergency lighting was installed below deck, in 2014 a leaking fire hose was replaced, in 2016 a heat detector in the galley's fire detection system was installed and in 2017 a fire extinguisher was replaced. The US Coast Guard also documents that the inspection in August 2018 and February 2019 did not indicate any violations.

The Sleeping Accommodation

It seems too many divers on a relatively small boat. Overcrowded. A diver posting on Facebook

Liveaboards come in many configurations and this depends on the boat design - some liveaboards are purpose built, some are converted. (Several expedition liveaboards in the UK are converted trawlers and they are coded for 12 passengers). In this instance the Conception was a purpose built liveaboard with open berthing. In plain English 'open berthing' is a simple bunk room. The Conception had passenger sleeping accommodation for 46 people in 13 double bunks and 20 single bunks.

The sleeping arrangements complied with the .

(a) A berth must be provided for each passenger authorized to be carried in overnight accommodation spaces. Each berth must measure at least 1,880 millimeters (74 inches) by 610 millimeters (24 inches) and have at least 610 millimeters (24 inches) of clear space above.

(b) Berths must not be located more than three high and must be constructed of wood, fiber reinforced plastic, or metal. A berth located more than 1520 millimeters (60 inches) above the deck must be fitted with a suitable aid for access.

(c) The construction and arrangement of berths and other furniture must allow free and unobstructed access to each berth. Each berth must be immediately adjacent to an aisle leading to a means of escape from the accommodation space. An aisle alongside a berth must be at least 610 millimeters (24 inches) wide. An aisle joining two or more aisles in an overnight accommodation space must be at least 1,060 millimeters (42 inches) wide.

Each bunk on the Conception was equipped with a reading light, pillows, blankets and a privacy curtain. The idea of a bunk room may seem like jammed accommodation to some, however it is perfectly normal accommodation to many divers, the armed forces and professional seafarers. Groups of divers or clubs are happy with dorm style accommodation because they all know and are comfortable with each other. The main focus of the trip is the diving, not lounging around in your cabin or bunk, and the experience adds to the camaraderie.

It is a great and relatively low-cost way to experience a unique form of California diving

I have many joyous memories of diving off liveaboards where all the divers sleep in a communal bunk room. As I write this two boats instantly come to mind. The ‘Harry Slater’ and the ‘MV Spree’. The Harry Slater was a very cheerful snug boat, and 12 divers ate and slept in one small cabin. Meals would take ages to eat because we would laugh so much. There is nothing wrong with this style of accommodation and I for one will continue to dive from liveaboards with communal bunk rooms and private cabins. The Conception was carrying 33 passengers, 13 below the maximum coded capacity.

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The mainstream media

This incident has been extensively reported by the mainstream media. As you would expect, because there is a lack of understanding about our sport, inaccurate information has been shared including statements that the divers were locked in. Dive boats are not locked down when passengers are on board. (The best guess I can make is that the US Coast Guard misheard "blocked" for "locked" and therefore thought the passengers were locked in).

The Conception had an open staircase (towards the bow) at the front of the passenger lounge / galley salon. It had a second emergency hatch that also exited in the same lounge / galley salon compartment. This was located (towards the stern) about 3ft / 1mt from the rear bulkhead and the main door that separated the salon from the dive deck.

It is standard operating practice that divers are given a safety brief when they join any dive boat. Bruce Rausch has dived off Conception on more than a dozen dive trips. He told the Los Angeles Times that the boat captain's extensive safety briefings covered the use of life jackets and lifeboats, the location of the escape hatch and methods of traversing the staircase.

In addition it is quite normal for divers to dive off the same boat on many occasions, and typically about half or more of the divers on every trip will have previous experience of the Conception, so they will be utterly familiar with the boat layout.

Given the opportunity, I would get on a liveaboard boat tomorrow and go diving. Eric Douglas

Dive industry stalwart, Eric Douglas, gave a very reasoned interview to CBS News, confirming that divers are given a thorough boat brief when they board. [Eric's interview starts at 2.38]. He also wrote an opinion article for CNN entitled 'The diving world tries to come to grips with devastating fire'.

It was a terrible tragedy, but it was extremely unusual. If you look at the safety record of liveaboard dive boats, the safety record is very good. Jonathan Bird

Award winning cinematographer Jonathan Bird (Jonathan Bird's Blue World) has dived off the Conception, and had just been diving on the Vision (Conception's sister ship) just days before the fire. , answering somewhat controversial questions methodically and in an intelligent manner.

Truth Aquatics is interviewed

We are utterly crushed. We are devastated. We are a small, family-run business that has taken this event entirely to heart. Our customers are like family to us, many returning for decades. Our crew is family.Glen Fritzler, Truth Aquatics Owner

The owner of the Truth Aquatics liveaboard fleet - Glen Fritzler - was interviewed by Natalie Brunell from .

This is a precis of Glen Fritzler's comments.

  • There were two entrances into the bunking area: a main entrance and an emergency escape hatch. There were no locked doors anywhere on the boat
  • The crew were all well-trained, they are all mariners, they did not bail on the passengers. They did everything in their power to help, but the flames just spread. Two members of the crew swam to the stern of the boat, but they could not access any of the fire fighting equipment because they were engulfed.
  • Two Mayday calls were made from the wheelhouse by the Captain. During the second call the Captain stated “I can’t breathe." It was at this point he jumped off the boat.
  • Nobody understands why this fire spread like it did. We’re all so surprised that the passengers did not get out. The only thing that I can possibly conceive is that people suffocated quickly. The smoke was billowing."
  • The crew feel horrible, it is probably survivor's guilt. They are an emotional wreck. One crewman perished. They were stationed down below decks with passengers."
  • There was no type of accelerant in the boat. No gas, no propane, no diesel. It is all electric." [Editor Note: the Conception was powered by 550-horsepower Detroit Diesel engines, with a total fuel capacity of 1,600 gallons]. There were some oxygen cylinders, some air cylinders and Nitrox 32 on the back deck. The back deck was one of the last things to burn.
  • We are a top-notch company and I have invested my entire life in this company. I take it very seriously and that will be disclosed. I am sure the Coast Guard has the utmost respect for our operation."
  • This boat has been in operation since 1981 and it has taken thousands of people out over that period of time with no fire incidents whatsoever.

Our dive shop dives with Truth Aquatics at least once a month and they are a great group of people. Always helpful and very professional.

The Lawyers

On Thursday 5 September the lawyers for Truth Aquatics filled a petition asking a judge to eliminate their financial liability, citing a statute from 1851.

If the hearse chasers were not showing up at the dock then a strategy such as this would not be necessary. Joel Silverstein, Tech Diving Limited

The petition was condemned on social media and the Los Angeles Times reported that Robert J. Mongeluzzi (a Philadelphia-based maritime attorney) stated it was a predictable, callous tactic for a vessel operator facing crippling legal payouts. “It is pretty heartless when not all the bodies have been recovered to file something saying their lives are worthless”. What might be deemed as "a callous tactic" is in fact a common action following a maritime disaster. It is highly probable that Truth Aquatics' insurance company, not the owner, took the decision to file the petition.

It cannot be overstated that the scuba diving industry is a small tight industry. Although I knew no one on this liveaboard, I am one degree of separation from at least six of the victims. Several of my colleagues are distressed having lost friends and customers. When we make friends in our sport, the friendship we make is a strong one. Glen Fritzler, owner of Truth Aquatics, last week stated in a telephone interview "I am numb. There were a lot of people that were on that boat that I knew personally, people that I have dealt with for decades." It is quite possible that Glen Fritzler had little or no say in the decision to file the petition and been merely informed of the process, because the USA is an overly-litigious society. The insurance company and its legal team who represent the owner were simply doing what they have been paid to do. This is a logical and prudent move because law firms had already reached out to victims’ families.

You can bet there are 50 lawyers chasing the survivors to file suits without waiting for any facts or valid information. Mike Ange, Licensed Merchant Mariner

It was reported in the Los Angeles Times that an administrator at a personal injury law firm had approached Steve Quitasol at a memorial. Steve Quitasol is the brother of a man who died in the fire along with his three daughters and their stepmother. Quitasol was informed that three families of victims had retained the law firm, and he was urged to schedule a meeting. The article states that Steve Quitasol was told by the personal injury law firm administrator "It’s not about saying that the staff or crew was wrong, it’s about (safety) protocols. It’s about the insurance company that insured the Conception.

Tragedies never end in a way where everyone is satisfied, especially when so many loved ones are lost

What caused the fire?

There has been mass speculation both by the mainstream media and on social media as to what could have caused the fire. We do know that investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff were on site within a few hours. Their remit is to conduct a safety investigation, not a criminal investigation. A criminal investigation is being conducted by the FBI, the US Coast Guard and the US Attorney in Los Angeles.

On Sunday 8 September 2019 agents with the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other agencies served warrants to search Truth Aquatics' offices and their remaining two other boats 'Vision' and 'Truth'. The Federal authorities subsequently seized documents - these documents are likely to be training, safety and maintenance records. This is standard procedure in an ongoing tragedy investigation.

All the relevant agencies have extensively interviewed the five survivors. The captain and four crew members were asked detailed questions and have been tested for alcohol and drugs. No-one has tested positive for alcohol, and the drug test results are pending.

The cause of death was smoke inhalation - the victims died prior to being burned. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown spoke to reporters on Friday 6 September and stated the preliminary evidence indicates that "the cause of death was smoke inhalation" and "that the victims died prior to being burned. Because it is believed the victims died of smoke inhalation there are no planned autopsies. A medical examiner will make the final report on this. In the meantime DNA samples have been taken from relatives to identify the victims.

We expect a preliminary report to be issued within the next ten days. We have been given to understand that the full report, which should answer fundamental questions, such as ‘what was the cause of this incident’, will be released in 12 – 18 months.

The investigation team will want to establish a timeline that starts with the moments leading up to the fire, the fire, and what happened after the fire. At present the most plausible explanation is a battery charging fire. This is typically a fast, violent ignition. It would create a rapidly advancing fire.

This is not an unreasonable assumption. We have all been on liveaboards where several charging devices have been plugged in to charge computers, cameras, dive lights, scooters, laptops and phones. Divers will use either a charging station or charge their gear on or near their bunk. We have all heard stories of a mobile phone being left on charge in a bedroom and setting a bed on fire. This could have happened on the Conception. However it is also possible that the investigators never find the cause of the fire.

I am personally aware that two cave diving explorers - Dr Richard ‘Harry’ Harris and Jill Heinerth - have suffered from battery fires. Harry Harris’ fire was quite dramatic. In 2008 he was travelling home from exploring Cocklebiddy Cave, Australia, when he spotted some smoke in his rear view mirror. Harry pulled over and within 10 minutes his Nissan Patrol car, along with its contents (MK15.5 rebreather, all his diving equipment, camera system, caving equipment, laptop and clothing) were totally destroyed and burnt to the ground.

The Divers

At this time the authorities have publicly identified 22 of the divers.

  • Carol Diana Adamic, 60 - Santa Cruz, California
  • Neal Gustav Baltz, 42 - Phoenix, Arizona
  • Patricia Ann Beitzinger, 48 - Chandler, Arizona
  • Vaidehi Campbell, 41 - Felton, California
  • Kendra Chan, 26 - Oxnard, California
  • Raymond 'Scott' Chan, 59 - Los Altos, California
  • Justin Carroll Dignam, 58 - Anaheim, California
  • Andrew Fritz, 40 - Sacramento, California
  • Daniel Garcia, 46 - Berkeley, California
  • Marybeth Guiney, 51- Santa Monica, California
  • Yulia Krashennaya, 40 - Berkeley, California
  • Alexandra Kurtz, 26 - Santa Barbara, California
  • Charles McIlvain, 44 - Santa Monica, California
  • Caroline McLaughlin, 45 - Oakland, California
  • Angela Rose Quitasol, 28 - Stockton, California
  • Evan Michel Quitasol, 37 - Stockton, California
  • Michael Quitasol, 62 - Stockton, California
  • Nicole Storm Quitasol, 31 - Imperial Beach, California
  • Steven Salika, 55 - Santa Cruz, California
  • Tia Salika-Adamic, 17 - Santa Cruz, California
  • Ted Strom, 62 - Germantown, Tennessee
  • Wei Tan, 26 - Goleta, California

NOTE: This report was updated on 7 October to include the remaining names of those lost on Conception.

  • Juha Pekka Ahopelto, 50 - Sunnyvale, California
  • Adrian Dahood-Fritz, 40 - Sacramento, California
  • Sanjeeri Deopujari, 31 - Stamford, Connecticut
  • Berenice Felipe, 16 - Santa Cruz, California
  • Lisa Fiedler, 52 - Mill Valley, California
  • Kristina 'Kristy' Finstad, 41 - Santa Cruz, California
  • Yuko Hatano, 39 - San Jose, California
  • Xiang Lin, 45 - Fremont, California
  • Kaustubh Nirmal, 33 - Stamford, Connecticut
  • Sumil Sandhu, 45 - Half Moon Bay, California
  • Fernisa Sison, 57 - Stockton, California
  • Kristian Takvam, 34 - San Francisco, California

Scuba Divers pay Tribute

The Conception was the first liveaboard that Underwater photographer Annie Crawley worked on. "I fell in love with California diving after my first kelp forest dive at San Miguel Island followed by a pinnacle dive on a limited load charter hosted by Glen Fritzler owner of Truth Aquatics more than 20 years ago. These boats are connectors of people. It’s where I first met Michele and Howard Hall, Seamus Callaghan, the production crew from PADI, Light and Motion Lights, Sea and Sea, DUI, all the crew from Eugene Skin Divers Supply, Dolphin Scuba Center and Underwater Sports and so many others. They were all charter masters who booked these boats because they were the best of the best in California.

This past July my dive team of kids, teens and families dived from the Conception with Captain Jerry. Dolphins greeted us on our first morning, we dived in kelp forests at Ship Rock, with sea lions, bat rays and black sea bass. The kids investigated the vessel and crawled from the bunk room to the dive deck through the emergency exit. They also did four night dives in a row."

Another underwater photographer, Richard Salas, stated "I dove Truth Aquatics boats for many years and they have always been a top notch organisation, and I have felt very safe on their boats. Conception is a great loss from our diving community."

Dan Rodarte works for Apeks Aqua Lung. He posted on social media "My first liveaboard trip was on the Conception in 1985. I just left a store where one of their employees was on the 2nd outing of this boat in 1981. What makes this so hard for most of us is that we can place ourselves on board that boat. At some time or another we've spent a night or many below deck without fear."

Fundraising appeal launched

California Diving, DAN, DUI, NAUI, PADI, PSI / PCI, Scubapro, SDI, SSI, Undercurrent and WDHOF have all contributed to a fundraising appeal. The funds collected will be distributed equally amongst the families of the victims. Families who lost more than one member will receive a share for each. If you wish to donate, . At the time of writing this, the total stands at US$ 78,935

has also set up a fundraiser. Again the funds collected will be distributed equally amongst the families of the victims. At the time of writing this, the total stands at US $21,969.

What could change?

I am sure that something will be learned from the investigation. This is a very unfortunate event and we - the entire crew and staff - are all sickened by it. Words cannot convey. Glen Fritzler, Truth Aquatics Owner

Despite the Conception being in compliance and being owned and run by a reputable charter operator, something went horribly wrong. The report into this fatal fire will no doubt have some recommendations, and they will be of great interest to the diving and maritime industries to help ensure there is no recurrence. It is possible that coding may change with regard to the maximum passenger capacity that sail on a liveaboard. The placement of escape routes in sleeping accommodation are likely to be reviewed and it may be that mandatory fire drills are also introduced, when new passengers join a liveaboard. Finally charging station protocols and design could well be audited.

Sources and references

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