Photo of Conception’s burned hull at dawn on Sept. 2, 2019, prior to sinking.

​​​Photo of Conception’s burned hull at dawn on Sept. 2, 2019, prior to sinking. (Credit: Ventura County Fire Department)​

Fire Aboard Small Passenger Vessel Conception

Investigation Details

What Happened

​​About 0314 Pacific daylight time on September 2, 2019, the US Coast Guard received a distress call from the Conception, a 75-foot-long small passenger vessel operated by Truth Aquatics, Inc. The vessel was anchored in Platts Harbor on the north side of Santa Cruz Island, 21.5 nautical miles south-southwest of Santa Barbara, California, when it caught fire. When the fire started, 5 crewmembers were asleep in their bunks in the crew berthing on the upper deck, and 1 crewmember and all 33 passengers were asleep in the bunkroom below. A crewmember sleeping in an upper deck berth was awakened by a noise and got up to investigate. He saw a “glow” outside. Realizing that there was a fire rising up from the salon compartment directly below, the crewmember alerted the four other crewmembers sleeping on the upper deck.

The captain was able to radio a quick distress message to the Coast Guard. Crewmembers jumped down to the main deck and attempted to access the salon to assist the passengers and crewmember in a bunkroom below the main deck but were blocked by fire and overwhelmed by thick smoke. The five surviving crewmembers jumped overboard. Two crewmembers swam to the stern, re-boarded the vessel, and found the access to the salon through the aft corridor was also blocked by fire, so, along with the captain who also had swum to the stern, they launched the vessel’s skiff and picked up the remaining two crewmembers in the water. The crew transferred to a recreational vessel anchored nearby where the captain continued to radio for help, while two crewmembers returned to the waters around the burning Conception to search for possible survivors.

The Coast Guard and other first responder boats began arriving on scene at 0427. Despite firefighting and search and rescue efforts, the vessel burned to the waterline and sank just after daybreak, and no survivors were found. Thirty-three passengers and one crewmember died. The surviving crew were transported to shore, and two were treated for injuries. Loss of the vessel was estimated at $1.4 million. 

What We Found

​The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the accident on board the small passenger vessel Conception was the failure of Truth Aquatics, Inc., to provide effective oversight of its vessel and crewmember operations, including requirements to ensure that a roving patrol was maintained, which allowed a fire of unknown cause to grow, undetected, in the vicinity of the aft salon on the main deck. Contributing to the undetected growth of the fire was the lack of a United States Coast Guard regulatory requirement for smoke detection in all accommodation spaces. Contributing to the high loss of life were the inadequate emergency escape arrangements from the vessel’s bunkroom, as both exited into a compartment that was engulfed in fire, thereby preventing escape.​

What We Recommended

​​To the US Coast Guard

  • Revise Title 46 Code of Federal Regulations Subchapter T to require that newly constructed vessels with overnight accommodations have smoke detectors in all accommodation spaces. (M-20-14)
  • Revise Title 46 Code of Federal Regulations Subchapter T to require that all vessels with overnight accommodations currently in service, including those constructed prior to 1996, have smoke detectors in all accommodation spaces. (M-20-15)
  • Revise Title 46 Code of Federal Regulations Subchapter T and Subchapter K to require all vessels with overnight accommodations, including vessels constructed prior to 1996, have interconnected smoke detectors, such that when one detector alarms, the remaining detectors also alarm. (M-20-16)
  • Develop and implement an inspection procedure to verify that small passenger vessel owners, operators, and charterers are conducting roving patrols as required by Title 46 Code of Federal Regulations Subchapter T. (M-20-17)
  • Revise Title 46 Code of Federal Regulations Subchapter T to require newly constructed small passenger vessels with overnight accommodations to provide a secondary means of escape into a different space than the primary exit so that a single fire should not affect both escape paths. (M-20-18)
  • Revise Title 46 Code of Federal Regulations Subchapter T to require all small passenger vessels with overnight accommodations, including those constructed prior to 1996, to provide a secondary means of escape into a different space than the primary exit so that a single fire should not affect both escape paths. (M-20-19)
  • Review the suitability of Title 46 Code of Federal Regulations Subchapter T regulations regarding means of escape to ensure there are no obstructions to egress on small passenger vessels constructed prior to 1996 and modify regulations accordingly. (M-20-20)

To the Passenger Vessel Association, Sportfishing Association of California, and National Association of Charterboat Operators

  • Until the US Coast Guard requires all passenger vessels with overnight accommodations, including vessels constructed prior to 1996, to have smoke detectors in all accommodation spaces, share the circumstances of the Conception accident with your members and encourage your members to voluntarily install interconnected smoke and fire detectors in all accommodation spaces such that when one detector alarms, the remaining detectors also alarm. (M-20-21)
  • ​Until the US Coast Guard requires small passenger vessels with overnight accommodations to provide a secondary means of escape into a different space than the primary exit, share the circumstances of the Conception accident with your members and encourage your members to voluntarily do so. (M-20-22)

To Truth Aquatics

  • Implement a safety management system for your fleet to improve safety practices and minimize risk. (M-20-23)​