LOS ANGELES – Crew members on a dive boat say they were never instructed on emergency procedures before a fire earlier in the morning swept the boat while anchored off the coast of Southern California and killed 34 people while sleeping under cover, according to federal documents released Wednesday.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board say the cause of the fire aboard the Concepción has not yet been determined, but a possible turning point was phones and other electronic devices plugged into electrical 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 diving expedition on Labor Day weekend last year. The fire broke out last night when the Conception was anchored off the island of Santa Cruz, about 25 miles south of Santa Barbara, the ship̵7;s home port.
All the passengers and a crew member sleeping under deck died; apparently no one had a chance to escape. The other five crew members, including Captain Jerry Boylan, survived by jumping into the water. They barely escaped after trying in vain to save the others, authorities said. Boylan made a May call at 3:14 a.m., saying, “I can’t breathe,” before leaving the ship.
They boarded a nearby ship, whose captain continued to call for help while members of the Conception crew searched for survivors again. It took more than an hour after Boylan’s first call to reach the Coast Guard and other ships. The Conception sank just after dawn.
Boylan could face federal homicide charges and recent court documents say criminal charges are imminent. The NTSB has said all six crew members were asleep when the fire broke out, which violates Coast Guard regulations that require a traveling clock.
Hundreds of pages of documents published by the security council offer a detailed view of the last hours of the ship on September 2, 2019. Voting will take place on October 20 on the findings of the investigation, as well as on the probable cause of the fire and possible recommendations.
Ryan Sims, who had only been working on board the ship for three weeks, told investigators he had asked the captain to discuss emergency plans the day before the fire. Boylan reportedly told him, “When we have time.”
“I didn’t know what the procedures were going to be,” Sims said. Other crew members also said they were unaware of the safety procedures.
Sims told investigators he went to sleep after seeing sparks when he plugged in his cell phone and documents do not indicate he reported what he saw. He told investigators that “while he was still in a state of sleep, he had heard a burst and then a crack below” while another crew member shouted, “Fire! Fire!”
Sims, who broke his leg escaping from the burning boat, has sued the boat owners and the company that rented it, alleging that the Conception was unsuitable for the sea and was operating safely.
Families of 32 victims have also filed lawsuits against boat owners Glen and Dana Fritzler, and the boat company, Truth Aquatics. In turn, the Fritzlers and the company have filed a lawsuit to protect them from damage from maritime legislation that limits shipowners ’liability. Court records show that they have offered to settle lawsuits with dozens of relatives of the victims.
Lawyers for the victims’ families, Sims, Boylan, and the Fritzlers did not immediately return requests for comment. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles investigating the case declined to comment.
Boylan and the Fritzlers, who owned three dive boats, had a good reputation among customers and the Santa Barbara sailing community. Coast Guard records show that Concepción had passed its two most recent security inspections.
In 2018, the Conception’s sister ship, the Vision, had a small fire that included a lithium-ion battery that was being charged. A Coast Guard vision inspection after the Conception fire found 40 violations, including 11 related to fire safety. He reduced the capacity of the night to 33 people after determining that his double bunks made it difficult for the second person to escape to bed. An inspection only a few months earlier had found no infraction.
Conception passengers, wearing a 75-foot wooden helmet, slept on stepped bunks below the main deck. A ladder at one end of the bunk room led up to the galley, as did a 22-inch by 22-inch exhaust hatch that was above an upper bunk and away from the ladder.
NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy noted how difficult it was to get to the hatch when she toured the Vision.
Documents indicate that the Conception’s escape hatch was normally discussed during safety briefings, but passengers were not shown where it was.
Kyle McAvoy, a Robson Forensic maritime safety specialist in Philadelphia who is often an expert witness at trials, said the hatch should have been discussed at safety briefings, but that it needs to be “fairly clear and obvious.” how to open it.
While interviewing Cullen Molitor, the ship’s second captain, investigators repeatedly asked about items connected to electrical outlets in the Conception galley.
Molitor said divers connected flashlights, camera equipment, strobe lights and cell phones on the night of the fire. According to a transcript of the interview, he estimated that there were 10 to 20 items plugged in on one side and five to 15 on the other, with at least one outlet, though he said he didn’t know for sure. .
Following the tragedy, the Coast Guard has issued additional safety recommendations, 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 on the stretcher and two in the galley, but he did not hear any alarm after a crew member woke him up. He wasn’t sure if they were connected to sound at the same time, but he said he would expect to hear them from where he slept.
“One thing we never heard was screams, bangs or anything from the boat, both while we were there and when we were nearby,” Molitor said.