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This was our statement, published on September 8, about the fire that destroyed the Conception
and which took the lives of 34 of our fellow divers.

This is going to be one of the hardest, if not THE hardest, TWARS I've had to write. If you've had your fill of this story already, stop reading here, close the e-mail, and I'll see you next week. For those continuing on, I'll try to provide some details and perspective.

Unless you've been blissfully isolated for the last week, you know by now that the dive boat Conception out of Santa Barbara caught fire in the early morning hours of September 2, and was quickly engulfed by the inferno, killing all 33 dive passengers on board plus one crew person. Five other crew managed to jump off of the burning boat and survived.

Needless to say, this has been heart-breaking on many levels. Our sincere condolences go out to the families of the victims, many of them likely not divers who don't understand the allure being underwater has for us but who begrudgingly tolerate our weird obsession, and who fully expected their loved ones to be returning to them with stories of a fabulous weekend on the water, not having to plan their funerals.

We want to acknowledge the unimaginable stress the five surviving crew members plus Glen Fritzler, owner of Conception and Truth Aquatics must be feeling. Regardless of how you feel about what they did or didn't do, try to put yourself in their place. The victims weren't just faceless customers in the bunkroom. These were people the crew had already spent two full days diving with, many of whom were repeat customers, and well-known to the crew. These were their friends.

With that in mind, think of what must have gone through their minds when at 3:15AM the crew was faced with a wall of flames, a boat fully engulfed in fire, their friends seemingly trapped in the bunkroom below, with the crew unable to render any type of assistance in terms of fire-fighting or simply pulling people out of the bunkroom, all the while fearing for their own lives as flames licked all around them. I've seen plenty of people criticize the crew for jumping off of the burning boat but I'm willing to bet that was the most reluctant jumps off of a boat they've ever made in their lives. (And let's not even start with survivor guilt.)

Chances are, given the breadth of the California diving community, that you knew someone on the boat. I did. I have to let you know that one of our Reef Seekers regulars (and a former Advanced student of mine), Marybeth Guiney, perished in the blaze. Her easy laugh, weird red high-top sneaker-booties, and easy smile will certainly be missed. But at the same time, we can cherish the time we were able to spend diving with her.

In terms of loss of life, this is the greatest California maritime disaster in recent times. To put this in perspective, in Los Angeles County we average 4-5 scuba fatalities each year. This like experiencing 7-8 years worth of fatalities, all in one day. And because most of us have been on these types of boats, part of what you are likely feeling is, "That easily could have been me."

The NTSB has organized an investigative team comprised of many of the responding agencies as well as some of the local SB dive community and will be conducting a thorough investigation. They have said a preliminary report might be out 10-15 days after the accident (which would be sometime around the end of the next week) but the final report could be two years or so in the making. There will be no easy answers here nor quick ones.

The NTSB has also asked that if anyone has photos or videos of the boat or has any pertinent information or insight, that you share this with them via e-mail at witness@ntsb.gov.

Because there are SO many variables in what might have happened and when, the NTSB will take their time to get it right. On top of that, remember that this really isn't a diving accident per se. This is a boating accident whose victims were divers. The victims could just as easily have been kayakers, nuns, or Girl Scouts in that bunkroom. So whatever the findings of the investigation are, they will have impact and reach far beyond just dive boats.

There are a few things we know, some things we can surmise, and a lot of things that are pure guesswork. Let me try and lay some of this out for you to try to give you a better understanding of how this transpired and where we go from here as a community.

As best as I can establish, this is a timeline of events (multiple sources, some in conflict with each other):
Sunday night - Divers complete night dive (no time specified - LA Times)
2:35AM - Crew member does galley sweep, all good, goes to bed (LA Times)
No time specified - Crew member hears "bump", opens door, finds wall of flames
3:14AM - Mayday call to USCG (ABC7 - others put it at 3:15AM)
3:18AM - USCG asks other vessels in area to respond (ABC7)
3:30AM - USCG arrives on scene and begins fighting fire (Ventura County Star - unclear as to what the USCG assets are)
3:42AM - USCG deploys (Associated Press - presumably fire-fighting boats & helicopters)
4:00AM - Ventura Co Fire deploys (AP - fire boats)
5:08AM - Fire extinguished (AP)
6:35AM - Sunrise (Weather Underground)
6:58AM - Vessel sinks (AP - VC Star puts it at 7:20AM)

Assuming these times are relatively accurate - and as we'll see in a moment, a minute one way or the other may have made a difference - it seems that whatever happened occurred in the 40 minutes between 2:35 and 3:15. By 3:15, the crew reports at least the entire galley/salon, if not also the main deck of the Conception, are fully engulfed in flames (the wheelhouse may have just been catching fire). I don't think there's definitive evidence if the bunkroom was also on fire at this point or not, but the main deck fire blocked the crew from getting to the bunkroom access points, both of which were within the galley/salon.

Early on, I Googled "time for a boat to burn" and came across a video from the Boat U.S. Foundation that's rather sobering. The short version is that once a fire starts, based on their actual test burns, you may have only 3-4 MINUTES to either get it out or get off the vessel before the fire and smoke get to you. So, in theory, this fire could have started as late as 3:10AM and been out of control by 3:15AM. Here's a link to the Boat U.S. video if you'd like to see the tests for yourself: BOAT BURN TESTS.

In my mind, there are two key questions to answer first (and they will lead to other questions):
(1) How and where did the fire start?
(2) How and why did it seemingly spread so quickly?

One thing we do know from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff (who is also the SB Coroner, working with pathologists), is that all of the victims suffered from smoke inhalation as their cause of death. This likely meant they were either unconscious or already dead by the time the fire reached the bunkroom. Small comfort, but at least it would seem that none of them would have been aware of what was happening.

But that raises other questions. If smoke did them in, why didn't anyone hear a smoke alarm (located in the bunkroom and galley) go off? Why wasn't there ANY noise - according to the surviving crew - heard from the bunkroom area? (As many of you know, these boats aren't exactly soundproof and sounds from one deck can usually be heard on another.)

There has been much made of the escape hatch, located over two of the top bunks and which opened into the rear of the galley. Regardless of whether or not it's big enough, easy to access, etc., at least TWO people - the two who were sleeping in the single bunks under the hatch - had immediate access to it. Why didn't at least those two escape the bunkroom? Did they open the hatch to find fire blocking their exit? Were they already unconscious and never attempted to open it? Hopefully these are questions that will be examined during the course of the investigation.

There are plenty of other areas that have been subjected to immense speculation on-line. I'm not going to address any of those here. There are simply too many variables, let alone the fact that the hull of the Conception has yet to be raised as of this writing (Sunday night at 7PM). Once that's completed, that will hopefully not only yield more clues as to what DID happen but will dispel some of the cockamamie theories as well.

As I mentioned, the investigation is going to take some time. Quite some time. Humans don't like to wait. We get it that you want answers now. But we'd counsel patience. And we'd also warn you that sometimes, the answer is "We don't know." Especially in an accident like this, where much of the physical evidence has literally burned up, some questions may simply not have an answer.

But that doesn't mean that there aren't things we, as divers and dive trip organizers, can do RIGHT NOW to try to make sure something like this doesn't happen again. We are NOT helpless.

At Reef Seekers, we don't really do overnight trips anymore on CA boats, but we certainly do overnight trips on foreign vessels (which may be subject to LESS regulation than US-flagged vessels). Next month, we're going to the Maldives on a liveaboard. In December we'll be in Mexico on another. Here are a couple of things we are implementing as Reef Seekers policy immediately:
(1) Once we have everyone on board, before the boat leaves port, and before anyone goes to sleep, we will as a group have a thorough walk-thru of the bunk/stateroom areas, clearly identify what the escape routes are, and review how to exit that area in the event of a fire, let alone one in the middle of the night.
(2) We will have that same discussion in reference to the boat capsizing and inverting.
(3) We will re-review this information with everyone halfway through the trip.
(4) We (meaning me or anyone else who is our group leader) will review with the captain of the vessel, what their procedures are for overnight watches, and whether that is roving or stationary or what.
(5) In an abundance of caution, we will unplug ALL battery/cell/computer/etc. chargers before the last person in our group goes to sleep each and every night.
(6) The group leader, in conjunction with the boat captain or boat DM, will test the boat smoke alarms on board EVERY NIGHT to insure they are working.

To me, these are some easy, common-sense things we can do RIGHT NOW. I would urge all other stores, clubs, trip organizers, boats, or whoever reads this to follow suit (and feel free to share this). Even if it seems like over-reacting without all the facts known, I'd rather be over-cautious than simply assume that doing nothing still means everything will be OK.

As to smoke detectors, there's another step that can be taken.

I don't know off the top of my head if all of the boats we use in foreign lands have smoke detectors or have enough of them. (I would hope they do.) And we certainly can't show up at a boat and if we find out they don't have them, say that we're cancelling the trip or not leaving port until they are installed. But that doesn't mean we can't bring some of our own.

Google "portable smoke detector" and you'll find a ton of choices. First Alert - a well-respected brand - sells a 2-pack of battery operated ones for $15 at Target: PORTABLE SMOKE DETECTOR. There are other choices as well, including ones that are combination smoke and CO (carbon monoxide) detectors. These are all small and will easily fit into your suitcase. Put a battery in, let it sit at the highest spot in your room (duct tape or blue tape would probably be helpful) and have an extra layer of protection and (hopefully) peace of mind.

I attended the Thursday evening memorial service, organized by Eco Dive Center & Heal the Bay, at the HTB Aquarium. I thought it was moving and healing. I encourage all of us as a community not to lose that spirit. Some trepidation the next time out is normal. And while we can be sad and mournful, we shouldn't let our grief paralyze us nor make us abandon this sport that we all love so much. I know Marybeth wouldn't have wanted her death to cause that to happen.

We will learn from this tragedy. We will improve. We will move forward.

Diver Strong.

- Ken

Ken Kurtis
Owner - Reef Seekers Dive Co.
NAUI Instructor #5936


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