Some Conception passengers said they weren’t told about emergency escape hatch

Months ago, Truth Aquatics owner Glen Fritzler spoke to Ralph Clevenger, who creates visual content for the company, about making a safety video that would play while passengers boarded his dive boats.

The video settles briefly on a person opening the Conception’s escape hatch. It’s located underneath a counter in the dining area where passengers stop by to sign the manifest and bears a red sign with the words ‘emergency exit’ and ‘keep clear.’

Clevenger, a photographer, finished the video the day before a fire on the Conception last week killed 34 people in the worst maritime disaster in modern California history.


Passenger knowledge of a safety plan aboard the vessel now plays a central part in a criminal investigation that is examining why no one sleeping below deck was able to escape. Law enforcement sources have told The Times that a preliminary investigation found signs of serious safety lapses aboard the Conception, including the possibility that passengers did not receive thorough safety briefings.

The Times spoke to more than a dozen people who have recently been on Truth Aquatics boats. Although many remembered the crew as professional and conscientious of safety protocols, some said that the captain’s initial safety briefing was inadequate and that they were never told about the escape hatch.

“I have no idea how we would have gotten out of that room in an emergency,” said Josiah Wilcox of Santa Rosa, who was on the Conception in April for a trip with the Sierra Club.

Bunk room escape hatch
A safety video made by Ralph A. Clevenger for Truth Aquatics shows the emergency exit hatch aboard the Conception that leads from the lower bunk room to the galley above.
(Courtesy of Truth Aquatics/Ralph A. Clevenger)

Douglas Schwartz, Fritzler’s criminal defense attorney, did not respond to requests for comment.

Those who died were presumed to be sleeping in the bunk area of the boat. There were two ways out to the deck — a staircase on one side, the emergency hatch on the other.

Both led to the galley area, where some believe the fire may have started. Surviving crew members who were above deck when the fire broke out told National Transportation Safety Board investigators the flames were too intense to save anyone.

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.

Still, the hatch has received scrutiny from the NTSB. Jennifer Homendy, who is leading the investigation, said she was “taken aback” by the size of the emergency hatch when she toured the Vision — an 80-foot sister vessel to the Conception.

“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.”

Search for final victim
Video frame grab shows divers resuming their search Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019, for the final missing victim who perished in a boat fire off the Southern California coast.

Clevenger said the video was intended to be similar to what passengers on airplanes watch before takeoff. Safety briefings on Truth Aquatics boats often take place once the boat has reached its destination. Fritzler was looking for a way to brief passengers before then, he said.

Clevenger, who has been on hundreds of diving trips with the company since the 1990s, said the captain would speak from the dining area next to the galley and refer to a written script during the briefing. Among other things, he would identify the escape hatch, point out the location of life vests and life rafts, and introduce the crew.

The probe is being led by the U.S. Coast Guard criminal investigative group under the oversight of the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles.

“I have never heard a captain on any of the boats deviate from the script, omit things or forget to say things,” he said. “If they do, the crew members say ‘Hey, hey.’”

He added that laminated sheets throughout the boat — including in the bunk area — contained safety information as well.

Others have said they could not have felt safer among the Conception’s crew. Zach Smith of San Luis Obispo, a diver who went on dozens of trips aboard the Conception, would typically hear Jerry Boylan, the captain of the boat the day of the fire, give a 15- to 20-minute safety briefing.

He said Boylan would instruct passengers not to put anything over the escape hatch.

“He makes everyone listen to it whether they’ve been on 100 times or zero times,” said Smith, who was last on the boat in May for a daylong diving trip.

The passengers of the Conception dive boat ended their second day in the waters off the California coast with a nighttime swim, exploring a lush, watery world populated with coral and kelp forests.

Don Barthelmess, a retired diving instructor who taught at Santa Barbara City College for 30 years, called Boylan “the most experienced captain in the Santa Barbara Channel.”

Barthelmess said he chartered the Vision in May and the crew explained safety procedures and pointed out the fire fighting equipment.

“They’re very serious about boat briefings,” he said. “I can’t think of a situation where it’s been lax.”

Ben Wolfe, a retired Los Angeles County fire captain who goes out with Truth Aquatics about four times a year, was on the Conception for a five-day trip in August. He said he has never had any safety concerns and called the crew “really safety conscious.”

“They make sure everybody is out of the bunks and everybody is there,” he said of the morning briefing.

But some, like Wilcox, recall their time on the boat differently.

“On that cruise, it seemed to me the watchword was ‘safety last,’” he said.

He said that passengers did not receive a safety briefing from the time they boarded the boat on Saturday night to the time they arrived at Santa Rosa Island about noon the next day. In the time in between, he said, high waves rocked the boat for hours.

“It was extremely rough,” he said. “People were getting sick left and right. I would have liked to have known where the life preservers were.”

After the boat anchored, Wilcox said, Boylan gave a safety briefing lasting no longer than five minutes. He said it mostly consisted of pointing passengers to safety cards on tables in the galley area. The captain, he added, did not point out the fire extinguishers on board or mention the escape hatch.

In a mayday call about a boat fire near Santa Cruz Island, Calif., the caller says he can’t breathe and there’s no escape hatch for those below deck.

Yvonne Churchill Rankin of Salt Lake City said that she could barely sleep the first couple of nights after hearing about the fire.

She said that the captain failed to show passengers where the safety hatch was when she dove with her husband last month on the Truth, the Conception’s sister ship.

The captain, she said, spoke only generally about the boat before the first dive, talking about the restrooms and telling passengers not to go into certain areas if they were wet.

“He made no mention of ‘in case the boat runs into trouble or we run aground, or if someone hits us, or if someone has a medical emergency,’” she said. “There was nothing of that sort at all.”

Rankin added that because there were few outlets on board, passengers utilized a lot of power strips, and that power extension cords were strung about in the galley area and bunk room.

One of the surviving crew members has theorized that a phone charging station may have caused the fire. Shirley Hansen, the owner of the Grape Escape, a fishing boat that provided refuge to crew fleeing the fire, recalled him saying that he thought the fire started in the galley, where cellphones and cameras had been plugged in to charge overnight.

“There was even an extension cord strung up through the ladder that led up to the safety hatch....
Anyone using the route could have gotten entangled in it while trying to escape,” Rankin said.

Several others who said there was no mention of the escape hatch during the briefing did not recall other safety issues. Emiliano Wichtendahl of Santa Barbara said the crew did not go over the safety hatch when he was on the Conception several weeks ago. He slept near a staircase that led out of the bunk room and hadn’t known of another exit.

“I just knew the stairs and that’s about it,” he said.

The Coast Guard has issued new national emergency safety bulletin to passenger vessels intended to improve safety in the wake of the Conception disaster, calling on boat operators nationwide to review safety measures, make sure safety equipment is operational and reduce potential hazards from lithium batteries, power strips and extension cords.

Surviving crew members aboard the Conception tell what happened when fire broke out.

The bulletin also called on operators to “review emergency duties and responsibilities with the crew to ensure they comprehend and can comply with their obligations in an emergency, including passenger safety orientation, and ensure that emergency escapes are clearly identified, functional and remain clear of objects that may impede egress.”

Federal investigators spent several days this week searching the Santa Barbara Harbor office of Truth Aquatics. The FBI on Tuesday asked to public for any information — including videos and photos — about the Conception. Efforts to raise the boat from the Santa Barbara channel have been repeatedly put off due to bad weather. Officials now say the salvage process to raise the boat will begin Thursday.

A second video that Clevenger made features Fritzler showing viewers where to secure their tanks on the boat, hang their wet suits and place their spear guns.

“Glenn was always improving the boats,” said Clevenger. “He wanted something that was a further reminder of where to put everything and where all the basic safety features were on the boat.”