When 34 people died after a boat fire in California, a lot of eyebrows were raised. How could such a tragedy happen in the United States in 2019? Aren’t there rigid security precautions in place to prevent situations like these? The accident occurred on a 75-foot-long boat named Conception, which was sailing off the coast of Santa Cruz Island. Conception was owned by Truth Aquatics, Inc. and had been commissioned for a 3-day diving expedition.
The boat reportedly caught fire in the early hours of the morning on September 2, 2019. The 34 passengers killed were all asleep. By the time they realized they were in danger, it was already too late. They couldn’t retreat past the flames, which were already spreading down into the passenger compartment. Eventually the boat sank with them still on board.
The story was recently confirmed by a preliminary report released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
According to the report, “Five crew members were asleep in berths behind the wheelhouse, and one crew member was asleep in the bunkroom.”
The law requires that at least one member of a seafaring vessel of Conception’s size must be awake throughout the night to ensure the boat is running safely. It the facts contained inside the preliminary report remain uncontested, that means that this regulation was being violated at the time of the fire.
Crew members who were asleep above deck still needed to struggle to escape, but such a feat was impossible for the 21 women and 13 men (aged 16 to 62) who were trapped below deck. The NTSB believes that all 34 victims died of smoke inhalation — and not from burns sustained from the flames or drowning after the boat sank.
Investigators are still looking into whether or not the passengers were aware of Conception’s safety procedures. Regulations require passengers to be informed and aware of these procedures before the boat or ship leaves dry dock. There was an escape hatch in the sleeping area. It remains unknown why the passengers did not use this hatch to find another way around the fire. Did they know it was there? Was it stuck? Or was the room already too full of smoke to find their way around when they awoke?
Lisa Novak, who works as a public affairs officer for the United States Coast Guard, said, “The Coast Guard Investigative Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are supported the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation and will work in close coordination with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”