The fire on board the Conception is a nightmare scenario. A wood and fiberglass boat, at night, while passengers are engulfed in flames as they sleep below decks. By the time the crew wakes up, there’s not much to do but save your own life at that point, a terrible thing to even imagine.
The crew sleeps in separate above-deck quarters from the passengers on this boat. I know this because, before I joined the navy, I grew up as a 12-year-old working on a boat like this just down the coast in Ventura, California. The boat I worked on was the, “PEACE”, and Roger, a captain, taught me how to SCUBA dive, and actually went on to work on the Conception. The same boat that caught fire and sank yesterday.
I can tell you this much, as someone who grew up working in the industry, Truth Aquatics, owner of the Conception, runs a very professional operation. They always have. For this to happen is extremely unfortunate for them and the industry as a whole.
So, what was the likely cause? Let’s look at some background first.
These kinds of trips were some of my best childhood memories, I met so many incredible people working in the dive industry. It’s no secret that these multi-day trips are fun, party, and dive trips. Three to four dives a day, anchor up for the night, turn up the music and pour the drinks. I mention this not to point fingers but to provide context. Usually the crew abstains from drinking but it’s not uncommon for a few crewmembers to stay sober so others can enjoy the festivities.
I can only think of two scenarios right now.
In the galley (what we call a kitchen on a boat) it’s common to cook with propane gas. Crew and passengers have access to the galley, and we’d have to work hard to keep some passengers away from the stove. We’d have snacks out at night, but some passengers would eventually try and cook by themselves, especially when intoxicated and we tried our best to keep them out of the galley. Very likely the fire started in the galley, gas, grease, and open flame — all are present.
The galley is directly above the berthing area where passengers were sleeping, and the crew would be above the galley. This would create a situation where the fire is above sleeping passengers, blocking the only exits. I would guess the fire started in the galley.
Note: In the featured photo of the Conception, the middle area with three windows is the galley, passengers would be sleeping below that level and the crew at the very top of the boat.
Engine room or electrical fire
This seems unlikely to me because there would have been alarms going off in the wheelhouse (again, where the crew and captain sleep) but it’s possible that the fire originated in the engine room where gas, oil, and electricity are all present.
What caused follow on explosions?
The boat nearby witnessed several explosions. These were likely caused by compressed air SCUBA tanks, oxygen tanks on board for medical purposes, and fuel tanks below decks.
So, you have a situation where passengers and crew are winding down a good couple days of diving the beautiful Channel Islands, and likely ending the weekend by tossing a few back. They retire for the night below deck to sleep it off. The hard-working crew is now fast asleep above deck.
Then, one of the crew awakened suddenly, when something is just not right, only when you look out the door, it’s nothing but massive flames, smoke, and confusion. They would have realized that the fire had grown to the point that you couldn’t do anything but jump overboard from a few stories above to save themselves. And that is a terrible thing to think about. As horrifying as it must have been in the moment, it will be keeping the captain and crew of the Conception up at night for a long time.
Thoughts and prayers to all onboard, their families, and the good people of Truth Aquatics.