Overwhelmed by the ‘Conception’ Fire, We Ask: What Now?

We are still reeling from the tragic Conception fire, which killed 34 divers off Santa Cruz Island a week ago today. We are also haunted by the question of, what now? In over 40 years of publishing Latitude 38, we’ve run many stories about boat fires, but never one with such an unimaginable loss of life.

One of those lost was part of our local sailing family. Kristy Finstad, 41, owned a dive company in Santa Cruz. She sailed in the Baja Ha-Ha with Bill Lilly aboard Moontide, has been featured in Changes in Latitudes, and sailed in the Pacific Puddle Jump with boatmate Dan Chua aboard their Maxim 38-ft cat Te Poerava. She was the daughter of Bill Finstad, who was one of the first scuba instructors back in 1972, and who had a dive shop/ adventure-travel dive business right next to O’Neill in Santa Cruz Harbor.

Like many of you, we are overwhelmed with grief for the victims and their loved ones. Though we’ve never been on a dive trip with Truth Aquatics, earlier this year, we took a liveaboard dive trip on a boat with similar accommodations. The cabins were below with a single aft stairway leading abovedeck, and a vertical escape ladder leading to a closed hatch at the other end of the central hallway. The thought of a fire aboard and having to escape never crossed our minds until last weekend. Now we’re wondering: Would we have been able to find our way in the smoke and chaos, climb the ladder, and open the hatch? Could it be opened? We never checked.

So where do we go from here? As we await the recovery of the Conception and the results of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation, we think the best way to acknowledge and pay tribute to those lost is to take a hard look at our own vessels and redouble our efforts to make them as safe as possible for every soul.

For our own boats we should ask: Are our fire extinguishers up to date? Are the bilge blowers working? Do we have enough bilge pumps and do they work? Do we have the proper sound-producing device and up-to-date flares? We think it’s a good time to take advantage of the Coast Guard Auxiliary’s longstanding service of free courtesy inspections.

Fire images from Latitude 38
While somewhat rare, fires aboard are incredibly dangerous and we’ve reported on enough that we believe in taking every precaution possible.
© 2019 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Website screen shot

It’s a sad truth of human nature that we often don’t pay enough attention to what could happen until it does happen. As with earthquakes, ship sinkings and plane crashes, it’s only after these horrific events and their devastating cost in innocent lives that the lessons become crystal clear. While we often recoil at the idea of new regulations, it is from disasters like the Conception that rules and guidelines emerge, making it safer for all of us. As hard to imagine as it is right now, the Conception tragedy will eventually do the same for the diving community — and perhaps all of recreational boating. The changes it brings will greatly reduce the chances that something like this will ever happen again.

Going forward, we encourage all boaters to let the officials do their jobs, and have respect for the victims’ families, the surviving crew, and Truth Aquatics, who by almost every account have been an exemplary, safety-conscious and well-run marine business for decades. The ‘instatwit’ nature of modern news demands instant explanations when time and space are needed to accurately discover and process the details of a tragedy of this scale. The tragic Ghost Ship fire investigation and trial just concluded after nearly three years,  with a hung jury and disputed ‘facts’.

The Conception tragedy did not involve a sailboat but involved sailors and those with whom we share the sea. That family includes everyone who loves Mother Ocean and all the beings, human or otherwise, who live in or upon it. Our hearts go out to the families and everyone impacted by this event. We’ll keep you updated with findings as they are revealed.

Until then, do what you can to refresh all your safety systems and say a prayer for the victims while we wait to learn what’s both useful and true.

7 Comments

  1. Chuck Cunningham 2 weeks ago

    Having enjoyed three different dive trips on “Truth” The Sister-ship to “Conception” in the 70’s, I can say that the operation was first rate and I had a great time. I did not feel comfortable down below in the cramped bunks. Obviously the number of divers did not exceed legal limits. I bought my own dive boat later. I did go on a SF based dive operation “See and Sea” who operated in all of the prime dive locations around the world. We were on boats of similar size to Conception but the number of divers were limited to 10 including the Dive leader. I know this is a luxury. No doubt the Dive Industry will make any improvements required to make a great sport safer.

  2. Nicholas J Salvador 2 weeks ago

    It would be easier to reserve judgement had not Truth Aquatics insurers filed to limit their liabilities so soon after the tragedy. This effectively started the clock on potential wrongful death claims, FORCING families still raw from their loss(es) to hire attorneys to fight the action and protect their rights to damages. They hadn’t even held services for the victims, so sympathy for the dive company might, understandably, be lacking.

  3. Ron Russell 2 weeks ago

    I’ve been on quite a few trips on both the Conception and Vision going back 35 years, and have always been impressed with the quality of the operation. A former Santa Barbara resident, I know the owner and crews to be exceptionally dedicated and conscientious. It’s just an unimaginable tragedy, and knowing the boats, one that is very hard to understand. In addition to the families of those lost, I can’t imagine what the surviving crew members must be going through. Results of the investigation will take longer than any of us want, but hopefully will provide some answers.

    I’d just throw out an addition to your list- without speculating as to the causes of the Conception fire. Another thing for sailors to look at which is not necessarily included in traditional safety checklists is the charging of Lithium batteries. There is a small but non-zero risk that damaged, defective, or inappropriately charged batteries could ignite- and they can be essentially impossible to extinguish. Thinking about when, where, and how to charge them with that possibility in mind is an additional safety consideration worth some thought.

  4. Mark Howe 2 weeks ago

    I have worked on or around boats all my life. While now a sailor, I worked many years on what are known as ‘party boats’ and there is really no difference between a 3 day trip for fishing, diving or oceanography.
    A bunk room is exactly that; stacked single bunks with an access ‘stairway’ that we call a ladder at one end. Usually the ladder is only a few steps at one end of the line of bunks and goes directly to an open-air deck. Since it’s possible to be trapped at the other end of the space there is a very large ‘escape hatch’ there that goes vertically up thru’ a very large opening, often the floor of the galley.
    That typical situation is how I remember the Conception. Skippers and crew will typically sleep in the wheelhouse or other space when not on watch and someone is always on duty in some capacity. Not at all unusual for crew to be up early getting ready for the day. Who could blame them for jumping overboard when there was nothing left to do.
    The boat I worked had only electric galley because of safety; propane is dangerous. I heard but doubt conjecture that Conception had a propane explosion, but the battery charging malfunction is believable. We must wait to hear how it is possible for both ends of the bunkroom to be blocked and not one single person get out.

    As tragic as this horrible event has been for all of us who have been a part of this maritime world, I have felt it equally as tragic to hear the news media begin to scratch around for somebody to blame and be sued. This is just as much a tragedy for the skippers, owners and crew as it is for those lost; perhaps even greater. Of all people, we mariners, whether divers, fishermen or sailors understand the risks. We should be above teaming up with an ambulance chaser to squeeze money out of a tragedy.

  5. Carliane Johnson 2 weeks ago

    As a long-time diver, I have not been able to wrap my head around how so many people could have died like that. The NTSB report is going to shake up the liveaboard dive industry to its core. While we wait on their findings, maybe Lat38 can do a story on how often recreational boaters get their extinguishers re-certified. Seems to me that knowing you have a good working extinguisher would be an important thing even if you’re not regularly inspected by the CG. I was on a friend’s boat a couple days ago and the extinguishers were original from 2014 and had never gone through an annual inspection. It was the same thing when I bought my boat and the original fire extinguishers from 15 years earlier had never been inspected. They are also no longer serviceable after 12 years. How often are the disposable ones good for? Most people I know have never even looked at them. (And then there are all those ancient and oft-neglected CO2 canisters from our PFDs….)

  6. Jeff Lee 2 weeks ago

    Thank you for probably the best report today of this tragedy. Yes, changes will be forth coming to the industry and many will complain. But what’s a life worth — especially yours and your loved ones?

  7. Marcus Crahan 1 week ago

    The Conception fire and sinking is a huge tragedy and I acknowledge both the souls lost and those who survived this event.
    I don’t know Truth Aquatics and I have never been aboard any of their vessels.
    I am an amateur yachtsman with 55 years experience sailing in on sailboats in a variety of conditions and oceans, so far without capital loss or injury to crew or me (knock on wood three times).
    I want to address the point you raised about what yachtsmen can do to prevent a similar accident from occurring to them when sailing on the ocean.
    All events in our lifetimes have a probability rate. The rate for any hypothetical sequence is the product of the probabilities of each independent event. Luckily the probability mathematics of a result being the cause of many independent serial events occurring in a specific sequence normally results in a low probability that a bad outcome will occur.
    The question what is the normal accident rate is a hugely important one (obviously).
    The study which I am aware of on this topic was conducted by Westinghouse Electric Corp. in the late 1950’s, and continues to be relevant today. Westinghouse’s Industrial Safety Division measured the accident rate across all Westinghouse product lines (manufacturing and post sales warranty losses), personnel workplace accidents, and other economic accidents (losses) occurring within Westinghouse operating divisions. As s result of this empirical accident rate study, Westinghouse established empirically that a “process” could be compromised 300 times before a specific (independent) compromise would cause an accident.
    Essentially the outcome to an (independent) specific life event, task or work product is equivalent to pulling the trigger on a revolver with a cylinder having 300 chambers and having only one cartridge.
    Of course the “300” statistic varied plus or minus in each case, but the outcome of the study was (and is today) 300 independent faults have to combine to result in a “class A” accident.

    What is the take-a-way message from Westinghouse Industrial Safety data to us amateur yachtsmen? The answer is just because one “got away” with a short cut yesterday doesn’t mean that one will have the same result tomorrow. The insidious consequence of the 300 to 1 ratio could lure an unthinking person to deduce “I got away with it once, therein my behavior was correct forever…..”
    I do not intend to be critical of anyone involved of the Conception accident.
    I hope this information is useful and results in improved yachting safety for all.

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On Saturday, hundreds of people welcomed Jeanne Socrates and Nereida as she coasted across the finish line into Victoria, British Columbia, to become the oldest person to sail alone, nonstop and unassisted around the world.
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