As Conception boat burned, divers trapped below deck calmly looked for way out, video shows

Escape routes were blocked by fire engulfing a middle deck above passengers.
(Los Angeles Times)

Federal investigators have recovered a short video recorded by a victim of the Conception boat tragedy as the 34 people trapped below deck tried to find a way off the burning ship. Six Santa Cruz County residents were among those killed in the 2019 tragedy.

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Following the horrific Conception boat fire in 2019, authorities offered a small solace: The 33 divers and one crew member had died of smoke inhalation and might have perished in their sleep without suffering.

That theory was called into question when some of the dead were found to have been wearing their shoes, leading investigators to speculate they had tried to escape before the ship was engulfed in flames when the nighttime fire broke out during a trip to the Channel Islands on Sept. 2, 2019.

Six Santa Cruz County residents were among the dead: Kristy Finstad, 41, Carol Adamic, 60, Steve Salika, 55, Tia Salika, 17, and Berenice Felipe, 16 — all of Santa Cruz — and Vaidehi Campbell Williams, 41, of Felton.

Now, more than three years after one of the country’s deadliest maritime accidents, a sobering piece of evidence has put the question to rest, showing conclusively that the divers were awake and searching for a way off the boat in the minutes after crew members had jumped into the water.

A 24-second video federal investigators recovered from a victim’s badly damaged phone recorded the relatively calm, but increasingly desperate, scene as smoke seeped below deck 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 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 cellphone that recorded the video, the man said, seems 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.

“They couldn’t find a way out,” said the man, who asked not to be identified to protect his privacy.

In the early morning hours on Labor Day 2019, the 75-foot, wood-hulled Conception was anchored just off Santa Cruz Island, about 27 miles from Santa Barbara, during a three-day dive trip. Five members of the crew were sleeping in the wheelhouse area atop the three-deck vessel, while 33 recreational divers and a crew member slept in a bunk room on the bottom level.

The dive boat Conception smolders after it burned off Santa Cruz Island on Sept. 2, 2019.
(Ventura County Fire Department via Los Angeles Times)

According to a National Transportation Safety Board report that pieced together how the tragedy unfolded, soon after a crew member awoke to popping and crackling noises, and saw a glow coming from the middle deck, the ship’s captain, Jerry Boylan, made a mayday call to the Coast Guard at 3:14 a.m. Crew members attempted to get down to the lower decks but were turned back by flames. Boylan and the others jumped overboard.

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

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

Boylan told investigators he tried to reboard the boat but could not. “Flames were coming up to the side doors,” he recalled. The boat’s galley on the middle floor was fully engulfed and he saw “flames coming out all windows.”

Boylan and the other crew members were already in the water when the diver who made the video started recording at 3:17 a.m., three minutes after Boylan made the mayday call, according relatives of two unrelated victims who said FBI agents explained the sequence of events to them.

A couple whose son died in the fire said they watched the video at an FBI office last month. The mother, who asked not to be named, recalled that faces were discernible and that she saw a man “pull up his cowl-neck shirt to shield himself from the smoke.”

She said that man and another diver were trying to find a way out near the stairwell that led to the galley on the floor above. Then, she said, the video captured a loud noise and someone saying, “Oh f—.” The cause of the noise was not clear.

“They didn’t die in their sleep like they first said,” the mother said. “They died terrified, knowing they were going to die. Even there at the end, they weren’t giving up. They are trying to problem-solve.”

By the time the video was recorded, investigators have concluded, flames had engulfed the Conception’s main deck and galley, blocking the stairway to the bunk room as well as a small emergency hatch. A Santa Barbara County coroner’s report determined all 34 people died of smoke inhalation. The only survivors were the five crew members who jumped into the water.

The man whose sister died said authorities informed him a few months ago that the footage existed and that he watched the video on a secure server at the FBI’s office in Sacramento. He said he was told that the family of the female diver whose cellphone recorded the video agreed to allow relatives of other victims to view it if they wished. He said it was not clear if this was all the cellphone captured or whether the FBI forensic technicians could only recover that segment.

The man said that after seeing it last Thursday, he reached out to other families and advised them not to view it. Although they were clearly desperate to escape, he said, the divers maintained a calmness that perhaps reflected their experience as divers who were used to dealing with potentially dangerous situations. He said it was not clear to him whether he was shown all the footage retrieved from the phone or just a segment of it.

Laura Eimiller, an FBI spokeswoman, declined to comment on the video, citing the ongoing investigation, civil lawsuits stemming from the blaze, and manslaughter charges federal prosecutors have filed against Boylan. In general, Eimiller said, “It is not uncommon for the FBI to share details with family members of victims.”

Boylan has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Glen Fritzler, owner of Truth Aquatics Inc., which operated the Conception, has denied wrongdoing and insisted that crew members were awake when the fire was detected. His attorney has said that a crew member was in the middle deck above the bunk less than half an hour before the fire was discovered. The families of victims have filed multiple lawsuits against Fritzler and his company for wrongful death.

A plaque was unveiled in 2020 to remember the 34 people who died in the Conception boat fire off Santa Cruz Island. 
A plaque in Santa Barbara memorializes the 34 lives lost in the Conception fire.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The families are also 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.

The cause of fire has not officially been determined, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The board concluded in 2020 that Boylan and Truth Aquatics failed to have crew members conduct a roving watch of the ship as is required by the U.S. Coast Guard. Had they done so, the board determined, it is likely a crew member would have detected the fire sooner and prevented the tragedy.

The FBI aided the NTSB and U.S. Coast Guard in their investigation. As part of that work, forensic analysts examined phones recovered from the boat’s charred remains in about 65 feet of water in Platts Harbor on the northern side of Santa Cruz Island.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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