In the early hours of Monday 2 September 2019, the liveaboard 'Conception' was burnt to the waterline, and sunk in Platts Harbor off Santa Cruz Island, California. USA.
There were 39 people on board, of which 34 souls were lost. (33 passengers and one crew). Later that day, the US Coast Guard declared the fatal incident a major marine casualty, and convened a formal Marine Board of Investigation to investigate.
The first investigators on site within a few hours of the tragedy were from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).Their remit is to conduct a safety investigation, not a criminal investigation, and they have been appointed the lead investigator.
The NTSB has now issued their Preliminary Report: Marine DCA19MM047. The Executive Summary is one page long.
At the time of the fire, five crewmembers were asleep in berths behind the wheelhouse, and one crewmember was asleep in the bunkroom. NTSB Preliminary Report
Mike Ange, dive industry accident expert and a US Coast Guard Licensed Master stated "Generally any vessel at sea, even when it is at safe anchorage, requires a night watch to avoid any number of issues including an onboard fire, or the vessel taking in water and sinking.
This initial NTSB report is certainly damaging in that it indicates this standard was not followed by Conception’s Captain.
I would like it noted that this is a preliminary report, therefore it is best to reserve judgement until the final investigation is closed. The preliminary nature of this report indicates that the facts may change as new information comes to light."
It not uncommon for late night watch keepers to fall asleep at their post. That is inexcusable and creates an unreasonable risk to the safety of the vessel and its occupants, but it does happen. In this case it appears that either no watch was assigned, or alternatively the assigned watch keeper abandoned his post and returned to his berth. If this is validated this would be a far worse breach of responsibility.
What does the US Coast Guard regulations state that govern watches on a vessel like this?
"Chapter I. COAST GUARD, DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY Subchapter T. SMALL PASSENGER VESSELS (UNDER 100 GROSS TONS) Part 185. OPERATIONS Subpart D. Crew Requirements Section 185.410. Watchmen.
§ 185.410 Watchmen
The owner, charterer, master, or managing operator of a vessel carrying overnight passengers shall have a suitable number of watchmen patrol throughout the vessel during the nighttime, whether or not the vessel is underway, to guard against, and give alarm in case of, a fire, man overboard, or other dangerous situation."
NTSB Final Report
The National Transportation Safety Board final report into this fatal fire will be released in the next 6 - 18 months. It will cover, amongst other things, current regulations regarding vessels of this type, year of build, and operation; early-warning and smoke-detection and alarm systems; evacuation routes; training; and current company policies and procedures. In the event that the source of the fire is determined, this will also be included.
This fire has been a chilling awakening for the world wide scuba diving community
Equipment charging protocols
This fire has been a chilling awakening for the world wide scuba diving community. The Truth Aquatics ‘Conception’ fire is a game changer. Scuba divers are saying "this is our Titanic." At the time of writing this we do not know what caused the fire, why it spread so quickly, and why there was such a large, catastrophic loss of life. But I can guarantee one thing will be reviewed. It is time we took the numerous lithium ion battery systems used in modern diving equipment, seriously.
These batteries offer many advantages, however we must remember they are high-energy devices. The US Navy consider them “hazardous at all times”. It therefore seems prudent for the industry to take note. Devices should now only be charged in clear view in common areas, preferably in a dedicated fire resistant charging area. Mobile / cell phones should not be left on charge in an unattended cabin / bunk. And chargers should be switched off and unplugged when a device is removed.
Our dive community is still hurting because each of us can place ourselves on that boat and in those bunks. Dan Rodarte, Aqua Lung
Truth Aquatics Statement
"My family and I are speaking today with extremely heavy hearts. No words will ease the pain that loved ones are feeling. We extend our deepest condolences to all those involved in this horrific tragedy.
We have not yet made a public statement because we have been working tirelessly with the NTSB to find answers. As a member of the NTSB task force committee, we are prevented from commenting on details of this active investigation. We are committed to finding accurate answers as quickly as possible.
Yet, we can speak to our emotions. 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.
Our lives have been irreversibly changed by this tragedy and the sorrow it has caused. The families and friends of the victims and survivors are now, and forever, in our thoughts and prayers."
- Glen Fritzler, Truth Aquatics owner and operator