“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Conception, Platts Harbor, north side Santa Cruz," the captain radioed. "39 POB (passengers on board). I can’t breathe. 39 POB. Platts.”
Those were the last words, at 3:14 a.m., that the captain spoke in a distress call over VHF radio to the U.S. Coast Guard on the morning when the Conception dive boat caught fire and sank last September, with 39 people on board.
All six crew members were asleep when the fire broke out on the Conception, killing 33 passengers and one crew member.
Those details and other harrowing accounts of the early morning boat fire on Sept. 2, 2019, are revealed in a 28-page National Transportation Safety Board report.
The federal agency on Wednesday released the report along with more than 100 other documents related to the accident.
The three-level, 75-foot vessel was anchored off Santa Cruz Island when it caught fire. At the time, five crew members were asleep in their bunks in the wheelhouse and in the crew quarters on the upper deck, while one crew member and all 33 passengers were asleep in the bunkroom down below.
A crew member sleeping on the upper deck heard a noise and awoke. He saw a fire near the end of the sun deck, then alerted the four other crew members sleeping on that deck, prompting a frenzy of activity.
A photo taken in August shows numerous electronic devices plugged in for charging aboard the Conception dive boat. A malfunction among such devices in a key area is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is looking into the vessel’s fire and sinking that claimed 34 lives. (FBI photo)
The crew awoke and the captain radioed a quick distress message to the Coast Guard. A ladder was on fire, so the crew members jumped down to the main deck.
One crew member broke his leg when he landed. They tried to reach the passengers on the bottom, but the salon on the middle deck of the ship was engulfed in fire and thick smoke spread throughout the boat.
The crew was overwhelmed by the smoke and unable to open a salon window. So they jumped overboard.
Two of the crew members and the captain swam to the stern of the boat and reboarded the vessel. They launched a small skiff boat and picked up the remaining two crew members in the water. They transferred to a recreational vessel anchored nearby, where the captain continued to radio for help.
Two crew members returned to the waters around the burning Conception to search for possible survivors. There was none to be found.
It took the Coast Guard and other first responder boats 78 minutes after the initial distress call to arrive on the scene. Helicopters also looked for survivors.
By the time the sun came up, the vessel had burned to the waterline and sunk in about 60 feet of water.
The smoldering remains of the dive boat Conception before it sank on Sept. 2, 2019, near Santa Cruz Island. (Ventura County Fire Department photo)
The boat hosted divers on an excursion over Labor Day weekend.
According to the report, before going to sleep the morning of the fire, the first galleyhand said he plugged in his cell phone to recharge and “saw sparks” at the outlet receptacle. Several other people on the boat were charging their devices.
Earlier in the night, between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., 17 of the divers on the boat conducted a night dive at a location called Quail Rock on the northwest side of the island.
While the divers were in the water, the second galleyhand turned off the electrical circuit breakers for the galley burners and griddle. According to the report, that had been the normal practice on the boat each night, since a burner had been left on inadvertently on a previous voyage.
He also energized the circuit breakers for the air conditioning unit to allow the bunkroom to cool before the passengers went to sleep.
Once the divers were back on board, items such as underwater flashlights, cameras and photo flashes/strobes that they used during the dive were stowed on two tables in the salon. The second captain recalled that, because the devices had just come out of the water, they were wet when they were set on the tables.
Crew members stated that some of these electronics, along with cellular phones and tablets, were plugged in to recharge via outlets located between the bench seat padding and on the rear bulkhead, according to the report.
Memorials sprung up at Sea Landing at the Santa Barbara Harbor following the sinking of the Conception. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)
The first deckhand said that it was not uncommon to have batteries charging next to camera equipment that was still drying after a dive. Crew members remembered that, on the accident voyage, at least one passenger-owned power strip was being used to recharge the electronics, according to the report.
Shortly after 2:35 a.m., the second galleyhand was awakened by the sound of what he thought was a plastic chair sliding on the salon deck. The sound, he said, sounded like someone fell. He considered getting up, concerned that a person might be injured, but then heard what he thought to be the sound of the restroom door shutting.
He continued to lay in his bunk, and between five and 15 minutes later, by his estimation, he heard a voice yell, “Ahhh!” He told investigators that “it was definitely a human voice.”
The second galleyhand got out of his bunk to go check on the person and saw a yellow glow from below the starboard side of the sun deck. The second galleyhand turned around and yelled, “Fire! Fire!” to wake up the other crew members sleeping on the upper deck. The captain then ran out of his stateroom.
The first galleyhand told investigators, according to the report, that while still in a sleeplike state, he had heard “a pop, and then a crackle downstairs.” He then heard the second galleyhand jump down from his bunk, and shortly thereafter yell “Fire!”
The crew members tried to access the deck but were unsuccessful because of the smoke. After the captain jumped overboard and then rose his head above the water, a galleymember, according to the report, heard the captain say: “Oh my God, all those people.”
The crew eventually used the skiff to reach a nearby anchored sportfishing vessel called the Grape Escape. When they arrived at the vessel, the crew members yelled and banged on the hull and back door to the salon until the Grape Escape’s owners awakened.
At 3:29 a.m., the owner of the Grape Escape called the Coast Guard to say, “We have a Mayday. I have a commercial boat on fire. Santa Cruz Island.”
The burned wreckage from the vessel was raised from the ocean floor about 65 feet below and transported by barge to Port Hueneme in Ventura County for investigation.
The documents released Wednesday, while revealing new details, do not state a cause for the fire and sinking.
The NTSB recently announced that a virtual board meeting would be held in October to consider the agency’s investigation of the fatal fire.
Its five-member board will vote on the findings, probable cause and recommendations, as well as any changes to the draft final report.
The board meeting for the investigation is scheduled to start at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time on Oct. 20. The NTSB will post a link directly to the webcast of the meeting shortly before it begins.
In addition, special agents from the Coast Guard Investigative Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation continue to jointly conduct a criminal investigation for potential seaman’s manslaughter.
Lawsuits were filed against the vessel owner in the aftermath of the Conception dive boat incident. Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics out of Sea Landing operated the vessel at Sea Landing at the Santa Barbara Harbor.