NTSB Faults Conception’s Owner for Deadly Boat Fire

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The remains of Conception before it sank on Monday morning, Sept. 2, 2019.

More than a year after what the LA Times called “the worst maritime disaster in California history,” the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined on Tuesday, Oct. 20, that blame for the Conception boat fire lies with the boat’s owner, Truth Aquatics, which failed to provide effective oversight of the vessel’s operations. The NTSB’s findings have already been disputed by Glen Fritzler, owner of Truth Aquatics, who has denied all wrongdoing. 

The blaze killed 34 people—33 divers and one crewmember, who all perished of smoke inhalation—who were aboard the Conception as it floated off the Channel Islands on Monday, Sept. 2, 2019.

Though the NTSB could not determine the exact origin of the fire from a wreckage examination, instead relying on interviews with the five surviving crew members, statements from previous Conception passengers and an examination of a similar vessel, called Vision, owned by the same company, to predict the fire’s cause. 

Their investigation found that the fire had originated in the back of a middle deck salon, but investigators could not determine whether the cause was the charging of lithium-ion batteries there, the ship’s electrical system or another unattended fire source, according to the LA Times.

The NTSB noted that the following factors compounded the fire’s deadliness: that the boat did not maintain a roving patrol—the fire burned for an hour and 40 minutes while those on board slept—as required by law, that the U.S. Coast Guard has no laws requiring smoke detectors in accommodation spaces and that the escape hatches in the Conception’s bunk room were inadequate, according to the Santa Barbara News-Press. The NTSB also found that the crew lacked training in critical areas: Three members had not been involved in a fire bill since they started working on board.

Yet the NTSB also said that the Conception staff’s emergency response was appropriate, though they were unable to save lives, the Santa Barbara News-Press wrote.

“It is a grim picture, a picture of a charter boat company that repeatedly disregarded its procedures” the LA Times reported NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.