Conception boat fire that killed 34 people started in plastic trash can, confidential report says

The Conception smolders at sunrise on Sept. 2, 2019, prior to sinking.
The dive boat Conception smolders at sunrise on Sept. 2, 2019, before sinking.
(National Transportation Safety Board)

The deadly fire that broke out four years ago aboard the Conception dive boat, killing 34 people, started in a plastic trash can on the main deck, a confidential report reviewed by The Times shows.

Investigators with the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives built a full-scale mock-up of the middle deck of the 75-foot vessel in their quest to determine the fire’s point of origin and cause. They conducted a series of burn tests at their Maryland research lab, which concluded the blaze began in a rubbish container and then quickly spread. Within minutes, the boat’s main salon was in flames, the testing showed.

The findings add to the mystery of what caused the deadliest maritime disaster in modern California history.


Ginger Colbrun, an ATF spokeswoman, said the bureau would not comment on the report, which has not been publicly disclosed because of ongoing criminal and civil court proceedings involving the inferno.

The fire ignited before dawn Sept. 2, 2019, while the three-deck, wooden-hulled Conception was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, about 27 miles from Santa Barbara. The excursion was at the tail end of a three-day dive trip.

Five crew members were asleep in the wheelhouse on the top deck and were jolted awake by shouts of “Fire! Fire!” shortly after 3 a.m. The boat’s 33 passengers and another crew member were trapped below deck by the flames as they tried to escape, cellphone video from passengers’ phones showed. Seeing the flames racing toward them, the crew jumped overboard and, after an effort to reboard the Conception, used a dinghy to paddle to a neighboring boat for help.

In initial investigations, officials with the National Transportation Safety Board focused on charging areas where divers plugged in lithium-ion batteries for cameras, phones and computers. One of the surviving crew members thought the phone-charging station might have sparked the fire.

Ultimately, ATF investigators focused on a 23-gallon Rubbermaid Slim Jim garbage bin that sat beneath the stairs of the main deck.

Stairway to the upper deck and restrooms of the Conception.
A photo from a previous Conception voyage showing the stairway to the upper deck and restrooms, as well as a polyethylene trash can under the stairs. At right, a still image from a 2019 video taken of the stairway, with shelving installed and a trash can below.
(National Transportation Safety Board)

Officials noted how one crew member heard crackling sounds from below and spotted the fire at the bottom of the stairs. The inferno blocked the escape route of those bedded down on the bottom deck.

Capt. Jerry Boylan has been charged with 34 counts of manslaughter. Prosecutors say he did not use a roving watch commander while those aboard were sleeping, as required by Coast Guard regulations. Four years after the tragedy, Boylan continues to deny any wrongdoing. He is scheduled to be tried in federal court next month after repeated delays.

In a motion filed Thursday seeking to dismiss the case, Boylan’s attorneys referenced the ATF investigation, noting the bureau “could not determine the cause of the fire.”

Conception crew members asked these boat owners for help. Some of the men were crying, one saying his girlfriend was still below deck.

Sept. 3, 2019

Multiple re-creations of the fire by ATF investigators showed a wall of flames blocking all escape routes on the Conception within minutes of ignition. When a breeze was added to simulate possible winds blowing on Platte’s Harbor the night the fire erupted, the blaze spread even quicker.

The report, authored by ATF Special Agent Derek J. Hill in January 2021, concluded that “after conducting a systematic fire scene examination, reviewing witness statements, examining pre-fire and fire photographs and videos, and conducting test fires, by inspecting physical evidence, interpreting fire patterns, considering fire dynamics,” agents determined “the fire originated in the garbage container located under the staircase.”

A Marine Board of Investigation by the Coast Guard has been delayed because of criminal proceedings in the case, which has prevented access to evidence.


Investigators have studied the burned hull of the Conception as well as thousands of pieces of evidence and examined a sister vessel owned by Truth Aquatics Inc., the dive boat company, that was nearly identical to the Conception.

Although the fire’s point of origin was determined, investigators still have not learned what ignited, and the ATF said the cause remains “undetermined as investigators cannot rule out discarded smoking material, the open flame ignition of combustible materials such as paper towels located with the garbage container or an event unknown to investigators.”

A salvage team raises the hull of the Conception off Santa Cruz Island.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The 197-page report noted that Boylan smoked cigarettes, but he said he threw them overboard. Two crew members also tested positive for marijuana but denied smoking onboard. A birthday celebration with candles took place the day before the fire, but survivors said the candles were all extinguished.

ATF officials cited crew member Mickey Kohls telling NTSB and Coast Guard investigators he emptied four smaller trash bins into the 23-gallon receptacle about 2:35 a.m. the night of the fire. He was awakened about 3:12 a.m. by a popping sound and saw a glow from the middle deck.

The NTSB reported in 2020 that there were polyethylene trash cans made by Rubbermaid throughout the Conception that were “highly combustible.” At the time, such bins were forbidden in all vessels’ sleeping areas and banned from all compartments on newer boats.


In June 2023, the Coast Guard issued a critical safety alert to passenger vessel operators urging them not to use such garbage cans. The alert came three months after a 153-foot sightseeing vessel, the Spirit of Boston, caught fire and suffered major damage while docked.

NTSB officials reiterated Friday their report on the Conception fire, noting that “polyethylene trash cans are ... susceptible to accidental fires.” The officials cited the board findings that while a definitive ignition source could not be determined, the fire most likely was caused by “the electrical distribution system of the vessel, unattended batteries being charged, improperly discarded smoking materials, or another undetermined ignition source.”

The board concluded “that the origin of the fire on the Conception was likely inside the aft portion of the salon.” It said “if the fire had started on the exterior of the salon in the area of the stairs to the upper deck, it would be reasonable to expect that the fire would have spread vertically, igniting the stairs above and spreading to the upper deck before it spread horizontally and into the salon compartment.”

But ATF investigators conducted a fire test in the trash can with a 3-knot breeze, and the flames consumed the salon area quickly. A little over two minutes into the re-created fire, the trash can collapsed, and by the 10-minute mark a nearby life ring was engulfed as a major blaze burned under the staircase. By the 12-minute mark, the salon was filled with smoke, and two minutes later, the entire back of the salon was ablaze. A photo taken from the escape hatch below deck looking up into the salon showed a wall of flames 14 minutes into the test video.

“This is one of the most thorough investigations of a vessel fire I have seen,” said an official who was deeply involved in examining evidence from the Conception fire but was not authorized to discuss it publicly. “They did everything possible to re-create the fire.”

The ATF said it found no evidence to support that the fire started where a tangled web of lithium batteries had been charging, although it noted that such batteries can ignite when they malfunction.


As a result of the fire, Coast Guard regulators placed strict new standards on charging stations aboard vessels.

A plaque memorializes the 34 lives lost in the Conception fire.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

A Santa Barbara County coroner’s report determined all of the Conception’s victims died of smoke inhalation.

Glen Fritzler, the owner of Truth Aquatics, has denied wrongdoing and insisted that crew members were awake when the fire was detected. Victims’ families have filed multiple lawsuits against Fritzler and his company for wrongful death.

Kathleen McIlvain, whose 44-year-old son, Charles McIlvain, was among those who died, said the ATF report is important “if it bolsters the manslaughter case and sends the captain to prison.”

The families also are suing the U.S. Coast Guard, alleging its inspectors allowed Fritzler to operate the Conception despite its having substandard electrical and safety systems. Less than a year before the fire, the Coast Guard certified the boat to carry up to 40 passengers overnight “even though her electrical wiring systems, fire detection and suppression systems and passenger accommodation escape hatch were in open and obvious violation of” federal regulations, the lawsuit alleges.


NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy sent a letter Thursday to the Coast Guard emphasizing the need to expeditiously implement safety-management system (SMS) regulations the board believes would have detected unsafe practices on the Conception.

“While the Coast Guard has implemented so many of our recommendations from the Conception investigation, we’ve yet to see the necessary action taken on one of the most important ones: safety management systems,” Homendy said in a statement. “We’ve been advocating for SMS on passenger vessels for nearly two decades. The public can’t afford to wait any longer.”

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 Conception dive boat is seen in an undated photo before the fatal blaze.
(National Transportation Safety Board)

A 24-second video that federal investigators recovered from a victim’s badly damaged cellphone recorded a relatively calm but increasingly desperate scene as smoke seeped into the dive boat’s bunk room, according to relatives of two unrelated victims who viewed the footage, as well as authorities involved in the NTSB investigation who confirmed the contents of the video.

In the video, “the fire alarm is going off ... you see smoke coming in from some of the fans and down the stairwell,” said a man who lost his sister in the fire. “People are walking around looking for a way to get out. Someone says, ‘Hey, there’s got to be another way out of here,’ and their voices weren’t panicked at first.”

The phone that recorded the video seemed to have been set down purposefully to capture the scene in the cramped cabin as smoke collects at first along the ceiling and then begins to fill the room.

Boylan, the captain, made a mayday call to the Coast Guard at 3:14 a.m. Crew members tried to get to the lower decks but were turned back by flames.

“I opened both doors, and smoke filled the wheelhouse,” Boylan wrote in an account to NTSB investigators, saying he was forced to leap into the water because of the intensity of the fire.

A crew member told investigators that when Boylan came to the surface of the water after jumping overboard, he said, “Oh, my God, all those people.”