California boat fire investigators rebuilding Conception to find cause of deadly blaze

The burned hull of the Conception sits atop a big rig trailer at Port Hueneme after being raised from the ocean floor off Santa Cruz Island on Sept. 12.

In an effort to determine the cause of the deadliest boat fire in modern California history, authorities are painstakingly rebuilding the burned remains of the Conception and scouring the ocean floor for more evidence.

Nearly a month after the fire that killed 34 people, authorities still have not determined a cause, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

Since the vessel was raised from the seabed two weeks ago and taken to the Port Hueneme naval facility, investigators led by the National Response Team of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have begun to reconstruct the boat.


Sources said that investigators are piecing together the remains of the vessel, much like they would after a commercial jet crash.

There are multiple investigations into the fire, including a criminal inquiry. The National Transportation Safety Board’s report found that the entire crew was asleep before the blaze was discovered and the Conception did not have a roaming watchman, as required by the U.S. Coast Guard for vessel certification.

The ATF completed a painstaking examination of the burned-out Conception, which was hauled to a Ventura County dock from the ocean floor Sept. 12.

The ATF “has finished with their inspection of the Conception. They have deactivated from the scene. [The] investigation as to the origin and cause of the fire continues,” the agency said in a statement to The Times.

Those who died were sleeping below deck and were trapped by the flames. Five crew members above deck were able to escape by jumping overboard.

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

The NTSB’s preliminary report said a crew member sleeping in the wheelhouse was awakened by a noise. When he got up to investigate, he saw a fire on the sun deck rising from the salon and alerted the other crew members. They jumped onto the main deck — one man broke his leg in the process — and tried to get into the salon and galley, but the flames kept them back. Overwhelmed by smoke, the crew jumped from the boat.


Preliminary investigations have suggested the fire did not start in the engine room, and there are mounting signs that the origin was in the galley. On the morning of the fire, one crew member told a rescuer he thought the fire had originated with electronic devices charging in the galley.

As the investigation continues, the U.S. Coast Guard has taken the unprecedented step of recommending that owners of passenger vessels immediately urge crews to “reduce potential fire hazards and consider limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords.”

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.

Sept. 10, 2019