The lead investigator probing the Conception boat fire disaster expressed concerns about the ability of passengers to escape in an emergency after she and her team toured a similar vessel in Santa Barbara Harbor on Wednesday.
National Transportation and Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy told The Times she was “taken aback” by the size of the emergency hatch when she toured the Vision — an 80-foot sister vessel to the Conception.
Authorities say 34 people died in the early morning hours on Monday when a fire swept through the Conception as it was anchored off Santa Cruz Island.
Five crew members who were on deck when the fire broke out were able to escape. All 33 passengers, who had signed up for a three-day scuba diving trip aboard the boat, and a member of the crew sleeping below deck died in the fire.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board, the U.S. Coast Guard and other federal and county agencies are trying to determine what caused the fire and why people were not able to get out.
Homendy said she and the investigators turned the lights off to see what it would have been like for the passengers trapped on the Conception. Getting to the emergency hatch was difficult, she said, adding that they couldn’t find the light switches in the dark.
“You have to climb up a ladder and across the top bunk and then push a wooden door up,” she said. “It was a tight space. We couldn’t turn the light on.”
Though slightly larger than the Conception, the Vision has a similar layout. Single and double bunks are stacked two and three high in the boat’s sleeping quarters below deck. A wooden staircase leads from the sleeping area up to the galley. Authorities say the exit on the Conception — along with an escape hatch that opens up near the dive deck on the boat — was blocked by fire.
Both boats are owned by Truth Aquatics, which operates the fleet for diving and other excursions around the Channel Islands. The U.S. Coast Guard has said the Conception had passed all recent inspections.
The NTSB’s tour of the Vision was designed to get a sense of the conditions on the Conception.
“I wanted to see where they kept the fire extinguisher, the life jackets and what it was like in the bunk room,” Homendy said.
After descending a set of stairs into the bunk room, one fire extinguisher at the bottom was blocked by a trash can, which would not be up to Coast Guard standards, she said. At the other end, there’s a hatch on the ceiling, she said.
Survival-factor specialists on the NTSB team will ultimately assess the path to the emergency hatch, she stressed.
But from her perspective, it posed problems, especially for larger people, she said.
“It was very difficult,” Homendy said about trying to exit the escape hatch. “I was taken aback by that.”
Aaron Roland, who has dived on the Truth Aquatics fleet numerous times, told The Times earlier this week that the Conception was a wonderful vessel but escaping up the narrow staircase from below decks in a fire would be a nightmare.
As authorities continued to probe the cause of the fire on Thursday, divers were still searching for its last victim.
Coast guard officials have recovered the bodies of 33 people. Their names have not been released, but family and friends have identified many of them publicly.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Sgt. Garrett Te Slaa said windy conditions on Thursday could pose problems for divers in the waters where the 75-foot vessel burned and sunk.
Seas were calm with good visibility underwater on Monday and Tuesday, but winds that rolled in on Wednesday and are expected to last several more days can make it difficult to stand on small vessels, he said.
Divers are not relying on sonar or other equipment to locate debris in the water.
“We’re going eyes on everything,” he said.
Staff writer Hannah Fry contributed to this report