Sinking of MV Conception

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Sinking of MV Conception
MV Conception burning.jpg
DateSeptember 2, 2019
TimeApproximately 3 a.m. PDT UTC−07:00
LocationPlatts Harbor, Santa Cruz Island, California, United States
Coordinates 34°02′51″N119°44′06″W / 34.04750°N 119.73500°W / 34.04750; -119.73500 Coordinates: 34°02′51″N119°44′06″W / 34.04750°N 119.73500°W / 34.04750; -119.73500
CauseFire
Outcome(See Aftermath section)
Deaths34
Non-fatal injuries5
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MV Conception
Map of the Channel Islands, California, with sinking site marked in red.
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MV Conception
MV Conception (California)

The sinking of MV Conception occurred on September 2, 2019, when the 75-foot (23 m) dive boat caught fire and eventually sank off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, California, United States. The boat was anchored overnight at Platts Harbor, a small undeveloped bay on the north shore of the island, with 33 passengers and 1 crew member asleep below decks when fire broke out shortly after 3 a.m. Five of the crew members, whose sleeping quarters were on the top deck, were forced by the fire to jump overboard but not before placing an initial mayday call to the Coast Guard and attempting to alert the passengers. The crew retrieved the Conception's skiff and motored to a nearby boat where a second radio dispatch was made. The loss of the boat spurred a rescue operation by the United States Coast Guard. [1] [2]

Dive boat Boat used for the support of scuba diving operations

A dive boat is a boat that recreational divers or professional scuba divers use to reach a dive site which they could not conveniently reach by swimming from the shore. Dive boats may be propelled by wind or muscle power, but are usually powered by internal combustion engines. Some features, like convenient access to the water, are common to all dive boats, while others depend on the specific application or region where they are used.

Santa Cruz Island island in the United States of America

Santa Cruz Island is located off the southwestern coast of California, United States. It is the largest island in California, and largest of the eight islands in the Channel Islands archipelago. Forming part of the northern group of the Channel Islands, Santa Cruz is 22 miles (35 km) long and 2 to 6 miles wide with an area of 61,764.6 acres (249.952 km2).

California U.S. state in the United States

California is a state in the Pacific Region of the United States. With 39.6 million residents across a total area of about 163,696 square miles (423,970 km2), California is the most populous U.S. state and the third-largest by area. The state capital is Sacramento. The Greater Los Angeles Area and the San Francisco Bay Area are the nation's second- and fifth-most populous urban regions, with 18.7 million and 9.7 million residents respectively. Los Angeles is California's most populous city, and the country's second-most populous, after New York City. California also has the nation's most populous county, Los Angeles County, and its largest county by area, San Bernardino County. The City and County of San Francisco is both the country's second-most densely populated major city after New York City and the fifth-most densely populated county, behind only four of the five New York City boroughs.

Contents

It is the worst maritime disaster in California since the sinking of the Brother Jonathan in 1865, and the deadliest in the United States overall since the USS Iowa turret explosion in 1989. [3]

<i>Brother Jonathan</i> (steamer) United States historic place

Brother Jonathan was a paddle steamer that struck an uncharted rock near Point St George, off the coast of Crescent City, California, on 30 July 1865. The ship was carrying 244 passengers and crew, with a large shipment of gold. Only 19 people survived, making it the deadliest shipwreck up to that time on the Pacific Coast of the United States. Based on the passenger and crew list, 225 people are believed to have died.

USS <i>Iowa</i> turret explosion

On 19 April 1989, the Number Two 16-inch gun turret of the United States Navy battleship USS Iowa (BB-61) exploded. The explosion in the center gun room killed 47 of the turret's crewmen and severely damaged the gun turret itself. Two major investigations were undertaken into the cause of the explosion, one by the U.S. Navy and then one by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Sandia National Laboratories. The investigations produced conflicting conclusions.

Boat

The Conception anchored at Avalon, Santa Catalina Island, in May 2000 MVConception2000Avalon.jpg
The Conception anchored at Avalon, Santa Catalina Island, in May 2000

MV Conception was a 75-foot (23 m) liveaboard boat built in Long Beach, California, and launched in 1981. [4] [5] It was one of three dive boats owned by Truth Aquatics, which operates charter excursions from Santa Barbara Harbor for groups of divers interested in exploring the Channel Islands, located close to the coast of Southern California by Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. [6] Conception was under charter to Worldwide Diving Adventures (WDA) for a three-day scuba diving excursion over the Labor Day holiday weekend, which was one of WDA's most popular diving tour packages. [7] [8] [9] The boat had been refurbished at a cost of more than $1 million following an incident in 2005 when it had been stolen and run aground. [10]

Motor ship ship propelled by an internal combustion engine, usually a diesel engine

A motor ship or motor vessel is a ship propelled by an internal combustion engine, usually a diesel engine. The names of motor ships are often prefixed with MS, M/S, MV or M/V.

Long Beach, California City in California, United States

Long Beach is a city on the Pacific Coast of the United States, within the Los Angeles metropolitan area of Southern California. It is the 39th most populous city in the United States and the 7th most populous in California, with a population of 462,257 in 2010. A charter city, it is the second largest city in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and the third in Southern California behind Los Angeles and San Diego.

Santa Barbara, California City in California, United States

Santa Barbara is a coastal city in, and the county seat of, Santa Barbara County in the U.S. state of California. Situated on a south-facing section of coastline, the longest such section on the West Coast of the United States, the city lies between the steeply rising Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Santa Barbara's climate is often described as Mediterranean, and the city has been promoted as the "American Riviera". As of 2014, the city had an estimated population of 91,196, up from 88,410 in 2010, making it the second most populous city in the county after Santa Maria. The contiguous urban area, which includes the cities of Goleta and Carpinteria, along with the unincorporated regions of Isla Vista, Montecito, Mission Canyon, Hope Ranch, Summerland, and others, has an approximate population of 220,000. The population of the entire county in 2010 was 423,895.

Federal and international regulations require boats over a certain size to be made of fire resistant materials and to include fire sprinklers and smoke detectors wired into the ship's electronics or linked to the bridge. Given the vessel's age and size, Conception, at less than 100  GT and with fewer than 49 berths, was not covered by those regulations. It was constructed of wood covered with fiberglass, as permitted by regulations last updated in 1978. [11] [12] At the time of the fire, Conception was believed to be in compliance with those regulations, and the most recent Coast Guard inspections in February 2019 and August 2018 did not result in any noteworthy violations. [13] [14] [11] According to the vessel's Certificate of Inspection, it had a maximum capacity of 103: 4 crew and 99 passengers; one crewmember was required to be designated as a roving patrol at all times when the passenger bunks were occupied. [15]

Gross tonnage

Gross tonnage is a nonlinear measure of a ship's overall internal volume. Gross tonnage is different from gross register tonnage. Neither gross tonnage nor gross register tonnage should be confused with measures of mass or weight such as deadweight tonnage or displacement.

Fiberglass (US) or fibreglass (UK) is a common type of fiber-reinforced plastic using glass fiber. The fibers may be randomly arranged, flattened into a sheet, or woven into a fabric. The plastic matrix may be a thermoset polymer matrix—most often based on thermosetting polymers such as epoxy, polyester resin, or vinylester—or a thermoplastic.

Conception lower deck bunk room, starboard side facing aft, from a May 2003 dive trip ConceptionBunk2000.jpg
Conception lower deck bunk room, starboard side facing aft, from a May 2003 dive trip

The boat was laid out with three decks. The upper sun deck contained the wheelhouse. The main deck, just below the sun deck, included a large cabin, which had a galley (in the forward portion of the cabin) where the crew could prepare meals and a salon (in the aft portion) with seating for meals. [14] On the lower deck, up to 46 individuals could sleep in 13 double bunks (12 of which were stacked in twos) and 20 single bunks (18 stacked in threes), with one labeled as reserved for crew. [4] [10] The rest of the crew berths were located two decks above, in the aft portion of the wheelhouse on the sun deck. [14]

Bridge (nautical) room or platform from which a ship can be commanded

The bridge of a ship is the room or platform from which the ship can be commanded. When a ship is under way, the bridge is manned by an officer of the watch aided usually by an able seaman acting as lookout. During critical maneuvers the captain will be on the bridge, often supported by an officer of the watch, an able seaman on the wheel and sometimes a pilot, if required.

Aft

Aft, in naval terminology, is an adjective or adverb meaning, towards the stern (rear) of the ship, when the frame of reference is within the ship, headed at the fore. Example: "Able Seaman Smith; lay aft!". Or; "What's happening aft?"

According to the deck plans, the main access to the guest accommodations was the forward stairway connected to the galley and main deck cabin. [4] The designer of the vessel stated that there were two exits from the bunk room: a forward staircase at the bow end of the vessel that led up to the galley area, and an aft escape hatch located above one of the bunks, which led to the salon. After exiting the aft escape hatch, a person would still be within the main deck cabin, approximately 3 to 4 feet (0.91 to 1.22 m) forward of the exit to the main deck. [16] Some former dive passengers could only recall the forward stairway exit and could not recall if they had been briefed on the presence of the aft emergency escape hatch. [17] Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown stated both exits appeared to have been blocked by fire during the disaster. [18]

Santa Barbara County Sheriffs Office

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office (SBSO) provides law enforcement for the unincorporated areas of Santa Barbara County, California, as well as several cities within the county. The cities that the Sheriff's Office provides police services for include Buellton, Carpinteria, Goleta and Solvang. In total the 640 full-time employees of the Sheriff's Office are responsible for 2,745 square miles (7,110 km2) of the county.

Fire

On the night of the fire, a crew member sleeping in the crew quarters on the sun deck awoke to the sound of a pop in the dark and believed it to be a disoriented crew member or passenger. Upon leaving his bed to attempt to aid the individual, he discovered an uncontrollable fire in the ship's galley, inside the main deck cabin. [10] The fire had already spread to the aft end of the sun deck. [19] The crew member returned to wake the remaining crew on the sun deck, [19] and two mayday calls were placed at approximately 3:15 am from the wheelhouse of the Conception. [18] [20] The five crew members that had been sleeping on the sun deck were unable to descend to the main deck, as the aft ladder was already engulfed in flames; they instead jumped down to the main deck and one broke his leg in the process. [21]

The ship's captain said the aft escape hatch was engulfed in fire and the surviving crew could do nothing to help the passengers and one crew member sleeping in the lower deck berths. [22] [23] The crew then attempted to access the main deck cabin through a window in the forward section of the boat, but were thwarted by thick smoke; flames prevented the crew from getting any closer to rescuing the trapped passengers. [21] [24] The five crew members leapt into the ocean from the bow to escape the fire; two and the captain retrieved the boat's skiff (an inflatable dinghy) from the stern, and, after retrieving the remaining crew, paddled approximately 200 yards (180 m) to the only boat moored nearby, The Grape Escape. [8] [19] [20]

The surviving crew put out another mayday alert from The Grape Escape and two of the crew returned to the Conception in the skiff to search for survivors. [10] [25] While waiting for aid, small explosions were heard from the Conception, believed by the crew to be caused by the pressurized dive cylinders rupturing from the heat of the fire. [8] One of the distress calls sent from the Conception initially suggested that at least one individual below deck was awake, as a man's voice was recorded screaming "Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! I can't breathe!" [26] However, Glen Fritzler, the owner of Truth Aquatics, clarified the first mayday calls had been made by the captain of the Conception from the wheelhouse before he evacuated from the boat. [18] [27]

USCGC Narwhal at Santa Cruz Island (Sept 2019) USCGC Narwhal off the coast of Santa Cruz Island.jpg
USCGC Narwhal at Santa Cruz Island (Sept 2019)

Coast Guard crews, the Ventura County and Santa Barbara County Fire Departments, and Vessel Assist responded by 3:30 am to a mayday call of a boat engulfed in flames. [28] Officials struggled to fight the fire, as the boat was in a remote location with limited firefighting capabilities and the fire was moving quickly and kept flaring up. In order to attempt to fight the fire and allow fireboats to reach the vessel, it was towed out to deeper water by a TowBoatUS ship. [29] The fire was extinguished by 5:23 am. [30] The Coast Guard cutter Narwhal, based in Corona Del Mar, arrived approximately two hours after being dispatched and remained onsite for four days as the command and control ship to coordinate rescue and recovery operations. [31]

The boat sank about four hours after the fire broke out, [8] coming to rest upside-down at a depth of 64 feet (20 m) approximately 20 yards (18 m) from the north shore of Santa Cruz Island. [7]

Victims

Of the 33 passengers and six crew members that were on board the vessel, all 33 passengers and one crew member were killed the night of the fire, with five crew members escaping with injuries. As of September 2, Coast Guard divers located 25 bodies, while nine other people remained missing. Four floating bodies were initially recovered at the time of the sinking, and another sixteen were pulled from the water later. Another five bodies were visible in the vessel but unreachable because of concerns about unsafe conditions on the boat. [29] The Coast Guard suspended search efforts on the morning of September 3, as it required the wreckage to be stabilized before searching it for further bodies. The unaccounted victims have been presumed dead. [32] [23] By September 4, all but one of the bodies had been recovered, with around thirty local divers and members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) assisting in the search for the last body. [33] The last body was located and recovered on September 11. [34]

Most of the victims were from California. One couple was from Arizona. [35] Two of the victims were confirmed to be Singaporean. [36] Two of the victims are believed to have been students. [37] It is believed that the youngest were age 17 and the oldest were in their 60s, with a majority of the victims from Santa Cruz and the Bay Area. [38]

DNA was collected from family members to be used by the Santa Barbara County coroner to identify the bodies. [39] Identification was delayed by the loss of the onboard passenger manifest and difficulties by law enforcement in initially locating a second copy. [11] The apparent cause of death was smoke inhalation. [40] [41] Twenty-three of the bodies were identified with the assistance of a private company that had developed a form of rapid DNA technology previously used to identify Camp Fire victims. [11] All 34 victims were identified by September 12. [42]

Investigation

Conception photographs from summer 1995
Conception bunk room showing the underside of the escape hatch from Summer 1995.jpg
Bunk room and aft escape hatch (above bunk #10), view directed portside.
Conception deck showing escape hatch in saloon from Summer 1995.jpg
Main deck, view towards bow into salon. Aft escape hatch exit is centered just inside the main deck cabin.

Truth Aquatics is considered a respectable business in the area, with their boats in good condition, according to state Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, who represents the Santa Barbara area. [35] Local entrepreneur Ken Kurtis, owner of a dive charter company, told The Maritime Executive it was the only major fire he was aware of on a Californian dive boat and the issue was not widely contemplated by the local industry. [12] U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein called for an investigation into the incident and specifically wants to address the training of the crew and why they were not able to rescue or alert the passengers. She also wants to see if additional regulations are needed to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Via press release, Feinstein stated "It's inconceivable that with all the safety regulations we have in place today, a fire on a boat can lead to the loss of life we saw this morning near Santa Cruz Island". [43] [44]

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) launched a go team on September 3 to the accident to investigate. The on-scene portion of the investigation is scheduled to last for ten days, with the objective to determine the cause of the fire and verify the safety measures that had been aboard Conception. [35] The Coast Guard launched its own safety investigation focused principally on regulation adherence and on determining if enforcement action was required. [45] The NTSB and other authorities toured the Conception's sister ship Vision, also owned by Truth Aquatics, to evaluate how it might be evacuated in the event of a fire. [33] During the tour of Vision, NTSB Member Homendy was "taken aback" by the difficulty of using the aft escape hatch. "You have to climb up a ladder and across the top bunk and then push a wooden door up. It was a tight space." [46] Speaking on September 3, Member Homendy said she was "one hundred percent confident that we will learn the why and the how" behind the accident. [45]

NTSB official using the aft (salon) escape hatch on sister dive boat Vision. NTSB B-roll - Vision lower deck bunks (escape hatch to salon).jpg
NTSB official using the aft (salon) escape hatch on sister dive boat Vision.

Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) immediately responded, but investigatory agents did not arrive until September 7, to investigate the point of ignition and cause of the blaze. [11] Search warrants were served on September 8 for the Truth Aquatics offices and the two remaining boats in its fleet. [30] On September 9, law enforcement sources told the Los Angeles Times that a joint federal criminal investigation was underway, led by the Coast Guard, joined by the FBI and ATF, and under the oversight of the United States Attorney for Los Angeles. The focus of the investigation is on records retrieved from the offices of Truth Aquatics, prompted by a preliminary investigation which indicated potential deficiencies in crew training, passenger safety briefings, and the failure to use a roaming "night watchman". [47]

On September 11, the Coast Guard announced it had convened a formal Marine Board of Investigation (MBI) for the fire and loss of Conception. The four members of the MBI will determine contributing factors, including whether the actions of certified people or any Coast Guard or government personnel may have contributed to the loss. [48]

Salvage

DB Salta Verde at Santa Cruz Island (Sept 2019) 190904-G-ZX620-0009.jpg
DB Salta Verde at Santa Cruz Island (Sept 2019)

Derrick barge Salta Verde ( MMSI number : 367507960) arrived at Santa Cruz Island to assist with the salvage operation on September 4. [49] Divers examined the wreckage to prepare to raise it, but high winds and heavy seas hampered the recovery plans. [24] Conception had settled on the bottom upside-down; the first attempt to roll the boat upright and raise it was planned for September 6, but recovery efforts would have been delayed if the windy conditions had continued. [40] The FBI assisted this portion of the investigation due to their experience in evidence preservation. [11] Side-scan sonar was used to image the boat in situ and video was taken of the undisturbed wreckage prior to lifting. [14] Divers are required throughout the process to monitor the lift and look for the last victim. [11]

Conception was rolled upright while underwater on September 6. Continued adverse weather conditions prevented the raising of the wreck [30] until it was lifted from the sea on September 12. [50] Ship traffic records showed that DB Salta Verde had left Santa Cruz Island and arrived at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme by September 13. [51]

Cause

Aft wall of main deck cabin on sister dive boat Vision, showing bookcase and power strips for charging electronics NTSB B-roll - Vision salon (cropped).jpg
Aft wall of main deck cabin on sister dive boat Vision, showing bookcase and power strips for charging electronics

The NTSB expects to conclude its investigation and declare a cause after twelve to eighteen months of investigations. [52] One of the surviving crew members theorized the fire may have started in the galley of the ship, where cellphones and cameras had been plugged in to charge overnight. The designer of the vessel speculated the fire began in the bunk area, possibly sparked by a lithium battery. [16] The NTSB expects to take remnants of any devices charging in the boat to their headquarters near Washington DC for further examination. [11] On September 10, the Coast Guard issued Marine Safety Information Bulletin (MSIB) 008-19, immediately advising owners, operators, and masters of passenger vessels to limit "the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords." [53]

Areas of concern

While there were smoke detectors on the Conception, the surviving crew did not believe any alarms sounded before they discovered the fire. The detectors were of the standard type for home use, which, at the time both Conception and Vision were built, met existing safety requirements. [54] MSIB 008-19 also advised that firefighting and lifesaving equipment should be checked immediately to ensure it is onboard and operational. [53] According to the preliminary NTSB report, the two smoke alarms were locally-sounding, located in the lower deck bunkroom. [19]

The boat was not at capacity, but according to the Los Angeles Times , the preliminary investigation identified the lack of a roaming night watch as a safety deficiency, [54] [55] in violation of the conditions in the Certificate of Inspection [15] and 46 C.F.R. § 185.410. [56] MSIB 008-19 advised owners, operators, and masters to review the vessel's Certificate of Inspection to ensure that crewmembers are aware of and understand any conditional requirements, including any crewmember obligations during an emergency. In addition, emergency escapes were to be clearly identified, verified functional, and free of obstructions. [53]

Preliminary report

NTSB issued a preliminary report on the fire on September 12. [19] While the cause of the fire had not yet been determined, the Board asserted that the fire had spread through the boat while all of the crew had been asleep, despite regulations requiring one crew member to be awake on night watch. [57] A lawyer representing Truth Aquatics disputed this assertion, and stated that one crew member had checked on the galley area around 2:30 am on September 2. [42] Officials believed that all of the passengers and the crew-member sleeping below decks had died from smoke inhalation before they were burned or drowned. [41]

Aftermath

California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a statement through Twitter praising the efforts of the emergency medical workers and offering his condolences to the families and loved ones affected. [26]

A makeshift memorial was created outside the headquarters of Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara Harbor. [29] [33] A vigil was scheduled for September 6 with first responders taking part in the open-to-all event, which was organised by local religious groups, divers, and other organisations. [58]

Truth Aquatics suspended operations on their remaining two boats following the disaster. [24] The company also filed a lawsuit in United States District Court for the Central District of California, claiming limited liability under Limitation of Liability Act of 1851. The suit, if shown that Truth Aquatics was not liable for the accident, would limit Truth Aquatics' damages only to the value of the ship, thus preventing any damages to be issued against them by the families of the victims should they file suit. It would also reduce the length of time that these families would have to counter Truth Aquatic's claims. This practice is common in maritime accidents. [59] The claims would be tied up in this limitation of liability proceeding. [60]

See also

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On the evening of July 19, 2018, a duck boat operated by Ride the Ducks sank on Table Rock Lake in the Ozarks near Branson, Missouri, in the United States. The amphibious vehicle sank with 31 people on board, leaving 17 dead, during high winds associated with nearby severe thunderstorms.l

Atlas Air Flight 3591 February 23, 2019 aviation accident

Atlas Air Flight 3591 was a scheduled domestic cargo flight operating for Amazon Air between Miami International Airport and George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. On February 23, 2019, the Boeing 767-375ER(BCF) operating this flight crashed into Trinity Bay during approach into Houston, killing the two crew members and one passenger on board. The accident occurred near Anahuac, Texas, east of Houston, shortly before 12:45 CST (18:45 UTC). Debris was found in the shallow waters of Trinity Bay, ranging from small articles of clothing to large aircraft parts.

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Investigation