Harrowing stories of death and survival in first minutes of California boat fire

The diving boat Conception caught fire as it was anchored near Santa Cruz Island off the Ventura County coast.
The diving boat Conception caught fire as it was anchored near Santa Cruz Island off the Ventura County coast.
(Ventura County Fire Department)

Harrowing tales have emerged from surviving crew members about the fire that broke out on the diving boat Conception off the Ventura County coast on Monday morning, leading to the deadliest maritime disaster in modern California history.

Authorities say 34 people sleeping below deck were killed. Five crew members on the deck escaped and have been interviewed by investigators since the fire.

Sources told The Times that a preliminary investigation into the fire has suggested serious safety deficiencies aboard the vessel, including the lack of a “roaming night watchman” who would stay awake while others slept and alert passengers in the event of a fire or other dangers.


Here is what we know about the chaotic minutes after the fire broke out:

Fire followed a night dive

A source familiar with the crew’s accounts told The Times that hours before the fire erupted, the passengers had participated in a night dive. A crew member who had been straightening up the galley and mess area went upstairs to the wheelhouse about 2:35 a.m.

Before the crew member went upstairs, he said, he checked to make sure the stove was cold and flammable materials were stowed, according to the source, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Sometime before 3:15 a.m., the crew member heard a noise and thought someone on the boat had tripped. The crew member went down to the middle level and saw the fire. The flames prevented him from getting down into the galley, the source said.

The Conception was on a Labor Day weekend diving excursion when it burned early Monday morning. Sources: MarineTraffic, OpenStreetMap
(Los Angeles Times)

Waking to an unstoppable fire

The crew members who survived have told investigators they awoke to a fire that could not be stopped.

The one who initially heard the noise looked over the side and saw flames coming up. He tried to use the ladder, “but the ladder was engulfed in flames,” said Jennifer Homendy, who is overseeing the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation,. “They just couldn’t get in.”


The entrance to the sleeping quarters and the escape hatch were blocked by flames.

“He heard no smoke alarm, he smelled no smoke, but he did see flames when he looked over,” she told The Times on Wednesday. “They didn’t hear anything.”

A commercial diving boat caught fire near the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island, Calif., early Monday. Many aboard the boat were believed to be sleeping below deck when the fire broke out in the pre-dawn hours.

Sept. 11, 2019

Jumping overboard

She said at least one crew member reported jumping over the side with other crew to try to rescue passengers.

“The galley area was engulfed in flames,” Homendy said, recounting what the crew member told investigators. “They tried to enter through the double doors but couldn’t get in because of the flames. They tried to access the galley from the front through the windows, but the windows wouldn’t open.”


Return to burning vessel

One crew member broke his leg jumping from the boat. Two others swam to a dinghy that had been tied to the Conception and helped their injured colleague into it.

They contacted authorities and “returned to the vessel to find survivors,” Homendy said.

By then, the boat was fully engulfed.

California boat fire: Investigator touring a similar vessel to the Conception said getting to the emergency hatch in the dark was difficult.

Sept. 5, 2019

Looking in vain for survivors

Shirley Hansen and her husband, Bob, were anchored near the Conception off Santa Cruz Island when they were awakened by loud thumping noises on the side of their 60-foot vessel.


“It was horrific, the pounding,” Shirley Hansen said. “Our boat is very well made. Having that sound come through [showed] they were very in need of help.”

Outside in a dinghy were crew members from the Conception. The men were wet, distraught, some wearing just underwear. One man appeared to have broken his leg, Shirley Hansen said. Another had injured his ankle, she said.

Many in Santa Barbara have ties to the tight-knit diving community devastated by the fire. Hundreds have visited the makeshift memorial in Santa Barbara Harbor.

Sept. 5, 2019

By the time the dinghy arrived at the Hansens’ boat, the Conception was engulfed in flames, said Bob Hansen.

Shirley Hansen said she and her husband gave the crew members blankets and clothes. Some of the men were crying, one telling them that his girlfriend was still below deck on the Conception.


Another man mentioned that the diving party had celebrated three passengers’ birthdays hours earlier, including that of a 17-year-old girl who was on the trip with her parents.

Shirley Hanson said two of the crew members got back in the dinghy to look for anyone who may have jumped overboard.

“But they came back and there was no one that they found,” she said.

The owner of the Conception, Glen Fritzler, told KEYT-TV that the crew “did their best.”

Officials have recovered the bodies of 33 people who died in a massive fire aboard the Conception. One person remains missing.

Sept. 4, 2019

“They did reenter the vessel from the back of the boat after they swam around it. They could not get to firefighting equipment because everything was engulfed,” he told the station.

Of the crew, he added: “They’re breaking down. They’re seeking counseling. It’s a very tough time for them.”

A salvage operation for the boat is set to begin Friday.