September 19, 2019
Report: Dive boat was “compliant fire trap”
SANTA BARBARA - A day of diving off Santa Cruz Island ended like countless others aboard the Conception, with dozens of divers asleep in tightly arranged bunks that all but filled the belly of the 75-foot boat.

As always, there were two ways out in case of emergency — up a curved stairway at the front of the cabin, or through an escape hatch in the ceiling over bunks at the rear.

Before dawn on Labor Day, when flames devoured the 38-year-old wooden-hulled vessel, no one below deck made it out of either exit. The only survivors were five crew members who were up top in the wheelhouse and managed to jump into the water and then onto a dinghy.

Now, as investigators search for the cause of the fire that killed everyone in the bunk room — one crew member and all 33 passengers — questions are mounting about the design of the Conception and its emergency escape routes.

By various accounts, both the design of the boat and the layout of its sleeping quarters met federal standards and both are widely popular among California operators of overnight dive and fishing excursion vessels.

Like other such commercial boats, the Conception was subject to annual inspections by the Coast Guard, most recently in February, when it was certified to be in compliance with all regulations.

But just because it passed muster with the Coast Guard does not mean the Conception was as safe as it could be, according to some naval design and safety experts who have raised concerns about the placement of the escape routes from the bunk room.

John McDevitt, a former assistant fire chief from Pennsylvania who is an accredited marine surveyor and the chairman of a National Fire Protection Assn. committee on commercial and pleasure boat fire protection, called the Conception “a compliant fire trap.”

“What bothers me is that the vessel was inspected by a Coast Guardsman within the last 12 months,” said McDevitt, who thinks the design of emergency exits was problematic. “This boat has been checked by the Coast Guard for 40 years almost.”

The Conception was one of three “live-aboard” dive boats operated out of Santa Barbara Harbor by Truth Aquatics Inc., which has been in business since 1974 and is now owned by Glen Fritzler. He declined The Los Angeles Times’ requests for an interview, but has defended his crew members’ actions in trying to save the doomed passengers
Story Date: September 13, 2019
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