A year after Conception boat fire, families mourn: ‘This should have never happened’
After the sun crept over the horizon Wednesday, the familiar soundtrack of this seaside city — crashing waves and circling seagulls — was, for a moment, drowned out by the reverberation of a chiming bell.
The chimes pierced the air 34 times — once for each of the victims who died a year ago when the Conception dive boat burned and sank off Santa Cruz Island, marking the deadliest maritime disaster in modern California history.
The incident has led to a flurry of civil and criminal legal actions focused on the role and responsibility of the boat’s crew and its owners.
Sometime around 3:15 a.m. on Sept. 2, 2019, crew members aboard the Conception, a 75-foot, wood-hulled vessel, woke up to a loud noise and saw massive flames in the boat’s galley. Directly below the fire, in the belly of the boat, was the main bunk room, where passengers slept, resting up for a scuba excursion.
The only escape routes were through two small exits that opened into the part of the boat that was already engulfed in flames. Five crew members escaped, but 33 passengers and one crew member sleeping below deck died in the fire. The Santa Barbara County coroner determined that the victims died of smoke inhalation.
A preliminary National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded that crew members had been asleep in the wheelhouse and that there was no one awake keeping watch, as is required by the U.S. Coast Guard during hours when passengers are asleep below deck.
The Coast Guard is conducting a criminal probe of the fire in consultation with the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI.
And, according to recently filed court documents, criminal charges appear imminent.
Many of the victims lived in California, but others were visiting from as far away as China, Singapore and India, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said in a message recorded ahead of the anniversary.
Among them, Brown said, were scientists, engineers, athletes, immigrants, chief executives, high school students, a nutritionist, a biologist, a marine conservationist, a hairdresser, a photographer, a venture capitalist and a visual effects designer.
The victims were “united by their mutual sense of adventure and love of the ocean,” he said.
For the families of the victims, the anniversary stood as a solemn reminder of a devastating year.
Some of the victims’ relatives boarded the Condor Express, a large whale-watching vessel, which carried them out to Platts Harbor. They stopped for a moment of silence as they looked out at the crystal-clear water, down at the place where their loved ones had died.
Other relatives stayed on shore, spending the morning near a memorial decorated with dried sunflowers, a white rosary and a pair of swim flippers inscribed with the number 34. They stood before a boulder with a sea-foam green plaque that reads, “IN MEMORY OF THOSE WHO LOST THEIR LIVES SEPTEMBER 2, 2019.”
Yadira Alvarez-Peterson watched as her 3-year-old daughter, Renata, playfully jumped up and down near the plaque, but her mind raced with memories of her older daughter, Berenice Felipe, 16, who died in the tragedy.
Berenice, who was a few weeks shy of her 17th birthday, had several colleges chasing after her, said Mike Peterson, her stepfather, who noted that his stepdaughter loved to teach her little sister new things.
Peterson looked over at his wife, who was staring off into the distance, and reflected on the relationship between the mother and daughter.
“So close,” he said. “It is hard to describe just how deep their bond was.”
Earlier in the morning, Kathleen McIlvain spent some time in front of the plaque.
She reached down and ran her fingers over the fourth name on the plaque: Charles “Chuck” McIlvain.
She thought about her son — about how deeply she missed him — and tears traced down her cheeks, falling behind her mask.
“Time doesn’t heal,” she said. “It is like yesterday.”
Her 44-year-old son — often Chuck or Charlie to those who loved him — was a visual effects designer with a broad smile. He had worked on “Spider-Man,” “Green Lantern” and “Watchmen.”
“We shouldn’t be here,” McIlvain said, softly. “This should have never happened.”
That lament was common among the grieving loved ones.
James Adamic, who lost his sister, Diana, said he hoped to see his sister and the other victims honored not only with words, but also with actions. He hopes to see changes through legislation, he said, as well as a deeper focus on safety among boat operators.
“This was a completely preventable tragedy,” Adamic said. “Simple things like better escape hatches and fire detection could have spared us all our grief.”
Adamic said he took some solace, however, in the thought of the first responders who rushed to the scene a year ago. They faced an impossible situation, he said, but they did their best.
“That brings some comfort to us all,” he said.
Several families of those killed have sued Truth Aquatics, the company that operated the Conception. On Monday, the families were notified that the NTSB will hold a hearing in October to reveal the final results of its investigation into the cause of the fire, as well as an examination of the events that led up to the tragedy.
A Times investigation found that the Coast Guard had rejected prior NTSB recommendations for tougher fire safety rules for small boats like the Conception.
The Coast Guard, which has sole authority over such vessels, told The Times this week that the agency remains dedicated to ensuring proper safety standards and protocols for all small passenger vessels. The agency added that it hasn’t changed the federal regulations or design criteria for small passenger vessels, saying that officials will rely on the final findings and recommendations of the NTSB and the Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation before implementing any rule changes.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard’s probe into the tragedy appears poised to culminate in criminal charges, according to a court filing in a civil case over the boat owner’s liability in the deaths.
The criminal investigation has focused on Capt. Jerry Boylan’s actions aboard the boat. Civil court documents show that federal prosecutors met with Boylan, who has not commented publicly on the deadly blaze, in July and presented him with evidence that could potentially be used against him. A conviction of so-called “Seaman’s manslaughter” carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. It is a charge that is sometimes brought in cases involving death at sea.
Boylan could not be reached for comment.
For McIlvain, and many of the other relatives, gathering with one another Wednesday was a powerful, but sobering practice — a reminder, she said, of the loss of her precious son, but also of the other families united in their devastation.
“Unimaginable grief all over again,” McIlvain said.
And yet, she said, she felt so much love from the other families. Although McIlvain didn’t go out on a boat Wednesday morning, her daughter-in-law rode out on a dive boat, donned her gear and dove down into the deep waters to honor her late husband.
Another memorial stone and plaque with the victims’ names rests on the ocean floor.
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