Conception dive boat.
A preliminary NTSB report into the Conception dive boat disaster confirms that no crew members were awake on watch at the time a fire broke out, leading to the vessel’s sinking and the death of 34 people near Santa Cruz Island. (Truth Aquatics photo)

A preliminary report into the Conception dive boat disaster confirms details already released by investigators into the vessel’s Sept. 2 fire and sinking that killed 34 people near Santa Cruz Island in Santa Barbara County, including the fact that no crew members were awake on watch at the time of the fire. 

The National Transportation Safety Board, one of many agencies investigating the fatal incident, outlined a timeline with details from interviews with surviving crew members. The report was released Thursday.

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester has said she believes the vessel was required to have a person on watch at all times, but the NTSB report states that no crew members were awake at the time of the fire, which was reported at 3:14 a.m. on Labor Day.

There were two “locally-sounding smoke alarms” in the bunk room, where the 33 passengers and one crew member were asleep when the fire was discovered, but they were not centrally wired in a way that would notify the wheelhouse, or other areas of the boat, in case of fire.

A crew member asleep in the bunks behind the wheelhouse, on the third, highest level of the three-deck vessel, was awakened by a noise, and saw a fire at the rear end of the sun deck, from the salon/galley compartment.

The bunkroom’s ladder and emergency escape hatch both lead to that compartment, and both exits were blocked by fire, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown has said.

Crew members discovered the ladder from their deck to the one below was on fire, so they jumped down — one person breaking his leg in the process, according to the report.

The salon/galley compartment was fully engulfed by fire in the aft (rear) and by thick smoke in the forward end, so crew members tried to access it through forward windows but failed, according to the report.

Crew members then jumped overboard.

“Two crewmembers and the captain swam to the stern, reboarded the vessel, opened the hatch to the engine room, and saw no fire. Access to the salon through the aft doors was blocked by fire, so they launched a small skiff and picked up the remaining two crewmembers in the water,” according to the report.

A crew member radioed a Mayday distress call to the Coast Guard from the Conception, and used the radio on the nearby good Samaritan vessel, the Grape Escape, to continue calling for help, according to the report.

The Sheriff-Coroner’s Bureau believes all 34 victims died of smoke inhalation before the fire reached them, Brown has said.

The Conception sinking is the “worst disaster in terms of loss of human life in the recorded history of our county,” as Brown called it Tuesday.

Multiple agencies are investigating the cause and origin of the fire, and no potential cause was mentioned in the preliminary NTSB report.

The Conception, built in 1981, was owned and operated by Truth Aquatics, a Santa Barbara company that also operates the Truth and Vision liveaboard vessels out of the Santa Barbara Harbor.

Search warrants have been served at Truth Aquatics offices, and NTSB officials, among others, have toured the Truth, a similar vessel, as part of the investigation.

Conception had three levels, with the lowest level in the hull housing the engine room and tanks, and the passenger bunk room and shower room. The main deck had the salon and galley, and the uppermost sun deck had the wheelhouse and crew bunks.

Dive teams and other searchers have recovered the bodies of all 34 victims, and a salvage operation to raise the Conception wreckage was continuing on Thursday.

“Investigators plan to examine current regulations regarding vessels of this type, year of build, and operation; early-warning and smoke-detection and alarm systems; evacuation routes; training; and current company policies and procedures. Efforts continue to determine the source of the fire,” the NTSB said in its preliminary report.

A final NTSB report is expected to take 12 to 18 months. 

The Coast Guard has already issued an urgent bulletin urging the owners and operators of similar vessels to review safety protocols.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.