As investigators searched for answers in the worst maritime disaster in modern California history, there was growing focus Tuesday on the limited escape routes available to the 34 people who are believed to have perished when a diving charter boat caught fire early Monday during a Labor Day expedition around the Channel Islands.
When the fire broke out around 3 a.m., five crew members on deck jumped overboard and escaped, paddling a dinghy to a nearby boat. Everyone else — including another member of the crew — was in sleeping quarters below deck and unable to get out, with the only two exits apparently blocked by fire.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Tuesday that the victims were trapped below deck with no way of getting to safety.
“There was a stairwell to get down the main entry way up and down and there was an escape hatch and it would appear as though both of those were blocked by fire,” he said.
The main staircase led into the galley, and the hatch opened into the adjacent mess area, both of which were engulfed in flames.
The U.S. Coast Guard has said the Conception, operated by Truth Aquatics, had passed all recent inspections. But Marjorie Murtagh Cooke, former director of the National Transportation Safety Board’s Office of Marine Safety, said the inferno could expose a broader safety problem that needs correcting.
“With 30-plus people dying, the investigation could lead to changes in the way vessels are designed or protected depending on the findings,” she said.
Cooke, now a marine safety expert for Robson Forensic Inc, said the exit routes are likely to be a key issue for investigators.
The NTSB will try to determine whether passengers were told about escape routes in case of an emergency. “Did they know about both exits?” she asked.
She noted that vessels are required to have two exits for sleeping quarters. In the case of the Conception, she said, “it appears that both exits from the sleeping quarters bring you up inside the vessel.”
Dr. Aaron Roland, who has dived on the Truth Aquatics fleet numerous times, said the Conception was a wonderful vessel but escaping up the narrow staircase from below decks in a fire would be a nightmare.
Roland said he did not recall a second exit and didn’t believe the crew pointed it out to passengers.
But Chris Callahan-Dudley, 39, who worked for Truth Aquatics until 2016 and at times served as captain on Conception, said the crew was meticulous about following safety protocols.
“Yes, we do kind of bombard passengers throughout the trip. It was one of the focal points of my morning briefings,” he said. The crew repeated to guests how they should get out quickly during the night, he added. He delivered his trip safety briefings at the escape hatch, a slat of wood that was lighter than a door. “If you bat it from underneath — it would come off. It’s not like you are lifting a hatch.”
The captain on board when the fire struck, Jerry Boylan, is a highly respected veteran in the local maritime scene.
“He’s got a deeply rooted history in Truth Aquatics and the Channel Islands, “ Callahan-Dudley said. “I’d say he has always been a very customer-forward and safety-forward captain in my experience. I can certainly remember times when it was almost a little too much,” he said, “making sure [crew] were aware of things.”
NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said the federal agency started its investigation Tuesday. The team of 16 investigators specializes in engineering, operations, survival factors and fire prevention.
“This was a terrible tragedy,” she told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “I cannot imagine what the families are going through.”
Homendy said she was “100% confident” that investigators would determine the cause of the fire.
About a dozen FBI agents boarded the Vision, another Truth Aquatics boat that was docked at the Santa Barbara Harbor Tuesday evening. The agents, wearing khaki cargo pants and navy T-shirts that identified them as an FBI Evidence Response Team, took pictures of the Vision’s interior, decks, staircases and entryways. They pinned sheets of paper with block letters beside some parts of the boat — an A next to a life preserver, a B next to the door to the top deck — and took pictures from several angles.
The wood-hulled Conception was built in Long Beach in 1981, according to Coast Guard records and the company’s website, and was powered by 550-horsepower Detroit Diesel engines, with a total fuel capacity of 1,600 gallons.
The below-deck sleeping area had 20 single bunks and 13 doubles, some stacked three-high, to accommodate up to 46 people.
Rescuers suspended their recovery Tuesday of the 34 victims trapped aboard the Conception off the rugged coast of Santa Cruz Island, saying crews need to stabilize the sunken vessel before divers could safely enter to recover more bodies.
After combing the island’s nearby shore and surrounding ocean, U.S. Coast Guard and Santa Barbara County first responders said there were no signs that any of the missing had survived.
Searchers had retrieved the remains of 20 people who had been found in and around the wreckage, 64 feet deep. That left 14 people still missing, including four to six bodies that rescue divers had seen inside the boat Monday but could not access.
“It is never an easy decision to suspend search efforts,” said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester. “We know this is a very difficult time for family and friends of the victims.”
The boat was anchored 20 yards offshore in Platts Harbor, a cliff-lined cove on the north side of the island, with 39 people aboard, when the fire started around 3 a.m. Monday. It was set to return to Santa Barbara Harbor, 25 miles north, that evening.
The Conception had a good reputation among divers; California Diving News once called it “California’s crown jewel of live-aboard dive boats.”
There was a fire-suppression system in the vessel’s engine room, as required by the Coast Guard, and fire extinguishers near the exits. The equipment was all present during the boat’s last inspection, officials said.
The names of those who died have not been released.
Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said he knows the families of the victims are awaiting information about their loved ones. He said officials would do “everything in our power to find out what happened aboard that vessel in the last moments of these family members’ lives.”
“As this community continues to deal with the unfolding tragedy ... the county fire district is committed to — on behalf of the county of Santa Barbara — expending all necessary means to find out the cause of origin of this fire.”
Times staff writers Matthew Ormseth, Lilia Miller, Louis Sahagun and Soumya Karlamangla in Ventura County, Susanne Rust in San Francisco and Dakota Smith, Colleen Shalby, Laura J. Nelson, Joe Mozingo and Hailey Branson-Potts in Los Angeles contributed to this report.