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California boat fire highlights need for secondary emergency exits

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Several people are dead and dozens are unaccounted for after a diving boat caught on fire near Santa Barbara, California.
USA TODAY

A commercial scuba diving vessel was engulfed by flames before dawn on Labor Day, hours before it was scheduled to return from a three-day dive trip through California’s Channel Islands. 

Of the 39 people aboard, five crew members who were above deck on the Conception when the fire broke out jumped overboard and were rescued by a private boat near Santa Cruz Island. The Coast Guard said Monday evening that four bodies had been recovered, leaving 30 people unaccounted for. The ship has since sunk in 65-foot waters, less than 25 yards off the coast of Santa Cruz.

Here’s what is known about the boat and fire at this time, as well as possible vulnerabilities that could have prevented the passengers from getting above deck and to safety.

What we know so far:  Details begin emerging as Coast Guard, NTSB investigate

Who owns the boat?

Truth Aquatics Inc., based in Santa Barbara, California, is owned by Glen Fritzler and has a fleet of three ships: Conception, Vision and Truth.

The Conception is a 75-foot, live-aboard vessel where passengers sleep and eat between dive excursions. It has berths for 46 people and has been in service since 1981. 

At the time of the fire, the boat was being chartered by Findstad’s Worldwide Diving Adventures, which leads diving expeditions.

What caused the fire?

The Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board have not identified where the blaze began. Aside from gas kitchen appliances, other potential sources of ignition include the oxygen tanks used to fill divers’ personal supplies or the diesel fuel used to power the boat.

Greg Ricketts, a former manager with the Federal Aviation Administration and experienced open-water diver, tells USA TODAY he suspects the cause of the disaster was a “galley fire, making it impossible for the crew to reach the guests and the guests unable to evacuate.”

A bunk layout map on the Truth Aquatics website shows only one staircase leads from the boat’s sleeping compartments up to deck, and it is near the galley. If the fire began there, it may have blocked passengers from reaching the deck.

Had they been able to get above deck, guests would have had access to the boat’s life boats and flotation vests. The Conception carried enough for 110 people.

What kind of fire suppression equipment did the boat have?

According to the website, the Conception had a fire suppression system for its engine room, but not the galley, where food is prepared.  

Depending what time breakfast was to be served, the kitchen crew may have been at work by 3:15 a.m., when the Coast Guard got the mayday call. It’s unclear whether the appliances in the galley and barbecue grill were gas-powered, but it’s possible, given that the boat was built in the early 1980s.

“Many yachts are moving to all-electric galleys to eliminate propane/butane fire sources,” Ricketts says.

Could the boat’s layout hamper survival odds?

“Secondary egress routes from guests’ quarters may be a safety weakness in dive boats,” Ricketts says. “While the layouts are acceptable in event of engine fires, galley fires are another matter.”

Diving enthusiast Joseph Catmull, 59, an attorney who has sailed on Truth vessels in the past, concurred, telling USA TODAY, “If the entry to the berth was blocked, it is my recollection, on that boat, there is only one exit and entrance, a staircase you may have seen in some of the website photos. So it isn’t hard to imagine that a fire could have caused tragedy.”

Family physician Aaron Roland, 62, tells USA TODAY that he, too, has been on the Conception and that it had only one exit from below decks, meaning passengers “have to go up stairs and through the galley and cabin to get outside.”

He says he finds it “hard to understand why two exits (are) not required.”

Roland says he read a report on Twitter that the Conception has an emergency exit behind the bunk room but that he was never told about it during the onboard safety briefing for his dive trip.

“In retrospect, I can imagine how dangerous it would be to wake in a smoke-filled cabin in the dead of night. As I recall, there was only one exit, and in an emergency, there would be a severe bottleneck,” Dallas resident Tim Xeriland, 49, a college professor and Navy veteran who has taken dive trips with Truth Aquatics, tells USA TODAY.

What kind of reputation does Truth Aquatics have?

Based on social media posts following the fire, the company has enjoyed a solid reputation in the Southern California diving community.

“Truth Aquatics has one of the best reputations in the industry for dive boat excursions and dive charters,” says Catmull, who last dove with them in 2006. “I never felt unsafe on any of their boats. The boats are probably the nicest in Southern California, and always had a top crew. The owner, Glen, was always extremely personable, capable and gracious.”

Jeff Hertler, 63, a former oil-industry veteran who has since given up diving, tells USA TODAY, “The crews on Truth and Vision were always safety-oriented. Even when divers were in water, they’d keep vigil for distressed divers on surface.”

Jacek Jasinski, 50, a scientist who says he’s been diving since 2001, estimates he’s gone on “perhaps 20-plus long weekend trips to Channel Islands” and “half of these trips (were) with Truth Aquatics. Never had any issues or felt unsafe there.”

The Coast Guard said the vessel was in “full compliance” with safety regulations during its most recent inspections over the last year.

What kind of medical training did the Conception crew have?

According to the Truth Aquatics website, the Conception crew is certified annually in CPR and oxygen administration. The ship is also outfitted with a full first-aid kit and bottled oxygen. 

Fourth Estate founder Jeff Brown, who has sailed on the Conception’s sister ship, Truth, said he and fellow dive passengers received a safety briefing he “felt was proper,” adding, “my experiences ‘feeling safe’ are directly tied to my opinion of the competency and professionalism of the crew – obviously some are better than others.”

Are divers worried about onboard fires or explosions?  

“Really, the last thing divers are thinking about is an explosion or a fire on a boat. (Oxygen) tanks are stored well away from the berths below, so that’s not a concern when you’re sleeping,” Catmull tells USA TODAY. “What divers are worried about are things like embolisms, or not coming back up.” 

Contributing: David Oliver, USA TODAY

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