How the Conception Dive Boat Tragedy Could Have Been Prevented

Dennis Sullivan

We have been continuing to follow the investigation into the CONCEPTION dive boat fire off the California coast last year. On September 2, 2019, the dive boat CONCEPTION caught fire, killing 34 people. On September 16, 2020, the NTSB released over 1,600 pages of evidence detailing the occurrences surrounding the fire onboard the vessel. While the NTSB has not yet assigned blame for the fire, nor have they issued an opinion on the probable cause of the incident, the evidence which they have released shows a clear picture of the vessel’s ownership and crew actions leading up to this tragedy. The vessel’s owners showed a total lack of concern for the safety of their passengers and ignored numerous regulations that would have prevented the deaths which occurred.

A vessel such as the CONCEPTION is required to have certain safety protocols in place. These include members of the crew standing watch as well as having a roving watch at night. The vessel was required to hold safety and fire drills, and its crew was required to be trained and competent. The evidence published by the NTSB indicates that none of these basic requirements were met by the vessel’s owners.

The crew onboard the CONCEPTION at the time of the fire had not received proper training, and the only training many of the crew had received was limited to on-the-job training. Members of the crew had not been trained on how to respond to emergency situations and had never even participated in a fire drill. While the crew was always required to have a member on watch and was required to have a roving watch in place at night, neither requirement was followed on the night of this tragedy. In fact, crew members who survived reported that they believed having a crew member sleep in the bunk room satisfied the watch requirement, because “that is the way they always did it.”

The owners of the CONCEPTION, Truth Aquatics, also owned other dive boats, and, prior to the fire onboard the CONCEPTION, had suffered a fire onboard the VISION, likely caused by overloading an electrical outlet in the galley when recharging battery operated dive equipment as well as personal cell phones and similar devices. The VISION fire was put out by passengers, but not before a bookcase where the fire started was destroyed. Although Truth Aquatics was aware of the fire on the VISION, and the cause of it, they took no precautions to prevent such an overloading situation from occurring onboard the CONCEPTION.

These tragic results of this incident were preventable. If the fire started at the electrical outlet where the dive equipment and cell phones were being charged, both Truth Aquatics, the owner of the vessel, and the crew, had knowledge of this probable overloading situation. Further, had the owners implemented any safety and fire protocols and systems to address a fire such as the one which occurred, this tragedy could have been avoided. The owners and crew of the CONCEPTION had a duty to protect their passengers and keep them safe. Instead of doing so, they ignored coast guard requirements, ignored even the minimum of safety standards, and as a result, their passengers tragically died.

Stepp & Sullivan, PC is a maritime trial law firm, with extensive experience in Maritime casualties, casualties involving Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board investigations, Limitation Act suits, and has experience in handling thousands of serious injury and wrongful death maritime claims during the past 35 years, including claims from crewmembers, passengers, and bystanders.

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