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Santa Barbara - South County

NTSB to hold board meeting to discuss Conception disaster investigation

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SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - The National Transportation Safety Board says it will hold a board meeting next month to discuss findings from the September 2019 sinking of the Conception dive boat that killed 34 people.

The NTSB board meeting is scheduled for Oct. 20 at 6:30 a.m. During the meeting, the five-person board will vote on "findings, probable cause and recommendations as well as any changes to the draft final report," the NTSB said.

The NTSB has been investigating the deadly dive boat fire over the last year. In late 2019, officials said it could take 12-18 months for the final report to be released.

The investigation centers on how the deadly fire sparked aboard the popular diving vessel and what, if any, safety precautions could've prevented the disaster.

The October board meeting will be broadcast online and will be available for public viewing.

Dive Boat Disaster

The popular diving boat which was owned by Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics, sunk off the coast of Santa Cruz Island in the early hours of Sept. 2, 2019.

The boat was overtaken by flames and began to sink after a fire broke out aboard the boat. The boat, which was chartered by a Santa Cruz diving company, was on the last day of a three-day diving trip.

Five members of the crew who were sleeping above the deck survived the fire by jumping from the boat. They told investigators they tried to rescue those who were trapped below before abandoning attempts once the conditions became too dangerous.

The surviving crew members were picked up by the Grape Escape, a boat that was anchored nearby.

The fire continued to burn throughout the morning and the boat eventually fell to the ocean floor. In the following days, divers from across the state searched the boat's wreckage for the remains of the deceased passengers. After several days of searching, the remains of all 33 passengers and one crew member were recovered.

The boat was later removed from the waters by a salvage barge and taken to Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme for examination.

The NTSB's preliminary investigation revealed that all crew members aboard the ship were asleep when the fire first began, despite regulations that required at least one crew member be awake overnight.

In May, the coroner's office said the 34 people who died aboard the ship died of smoke inhalation. The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office also said that all the victims were out of their bunks and were in the berthing area when they died, citing the coroner's report. Their bodies were displaced when the boat sunk to the ocean floor.

Safety

The safety of the boat was brought into question after the deadly disaster.

Among the areas of concern included the use of electrical charging stations where passengers could charge their mobile devices. Conception, which was built in the 1980s, was not originally equipped with charging stations meant for modern devices.

Additionally, the prevalence of lithium-ion batteries aboard the ship were theorized as a possible ignition source.

Conception was outfitted with commercial smoke alarms that were mostly used inside homes. These smoke alarms met the minimum safety requirements for boats built at the time.

California lawmakers later presented new legislation that looks to raise safety requirements aboard small passenger vessels.

The fire is also the subject of a federal criminal investigation, led by the Coast Guard, the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles.

Truth Aquatics

Truth Aquatics, which owned and operated Conception as well as two other diving boats, has filed a lawsuit which aims to protect the company and limit its financial liability. The filing of this lawsuit is considered to be common practice for maritime disasters.

The company, owned by longtime Santa Barbara residents Glen and Dana Fritzler, was considered a pillar of the boating community prior to the disaster. They spoke with reporter Beth Farnsworth last year and said they were devastated and were mourning the loss of the 34 lives aboard the boat.

At least two lawsuits have been filed against Truth Aquatics. One from the widow of a man killed in the disaster, and another by a surviving crew member who said the company was operating under unsafe conditions.

In October 2019, Truth Aquatics announced they were suspending operations indefinitely.

One Year Later

Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of the sinking of Conception. Local officials plan to hold a virtual ceremony to honor the victims of the disaster Wednesday at 7 a.m.

The ceremony will be broadcast on KEYT.com.


Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story improperly cited the Ventura County Sheriff's Office. The story has been corrected and now cites the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office as the source of the information.

California / Safety
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Travis Schlepp

Travis Schlepp is the Digital Content Director for NewsChannel 3-12. To learn more about Travis, click here.

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