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An Unspeakable Tragedy at Sea

Thirty-four people are presumed dead after a fire broke out on the 75-ft diving vessel Conception on Monday off the Channel Islands. “Most of the passengers had come from several towns in the San Francisco Bay Area,” CNN reported. The Conception was on a three-day Labor Day scuba diving trip, and reportedly had several families onboard. Ages of the victims range from people in their teens to their 60s, according to the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office. “Of the 39 aboard, 33 passengers and one crew member are presumed dead. Only five people — all crew members — were found alive, and the bodies of 20 people have been recovered off the coast of Santa Cruz Island.”

Yesterday, the Coast Guard suspended their search for victims. “It is never an easy decision to suspend search efforts,” said Captain Monica Rochester of the Coast Guard. “We know this is a very difficult time for family and friends of the victims.”

The diving boat Conception burns off the coast of Santa Cruz Island on Monday, September 2.
© 2019 Santa Barbara Sheriff's Office

The cause of the fire is unclear, and is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB. “There are many boats like [Conception] that operate around the California coast, according to experts and longtime divers,” the New York Times reported. The Conception was considered California’s crown jewel liveaboard dive boat, and the NY Times reached out to former guests“Most said they had great experiences, and while some said that the tightly packed bunks unsettled them, many others said they felt fine.”

The Los Angeles Times interviewed Marjorie Murtagh Cooke, the former director of the NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety, who said, “‘Vessels have to have two exits for escape by law for the sleeping quarters. It appears that both exits from the sleeping quarters bring you up inside the vessel.’ Cooke, a marine safety expert at the consulting firm Robson Forensic, said the exits from the sleeping quarters — a staircase and a hatch, based on images made public — lead to the mess and galley, which appear to be one large room. ‘If both escape routes from the sleeping quarters lead to the same area, a fire there could potentially block the only means for passengers to get out,'” Cooke told the Times.

“With 30-plus people dying, the investigation could lead to changes in the way vessels are designed or protected depending on the findings,” Cooke was quoted as saying.

Our hearts go out to everyone affected by this terrible tragedy. With the cause of the fire still unknown, it’s only natural to speculate, and, in our grief, to want to blame someone.

This morning, NPR quoted artist Sebastian Orth, who knew several crew members at Truth Aquatics, who ran the Conception. “I feel really bad for the crew members who had to jump off and couldn’t do anything. That’s got to be terrible for them because I’m sure they didn’t want to jump off the boat and do that.”

We will bring you the results of the investigation into the fire aboard Conception as they become available.


  1. James Dilworth 3 years ago

    Incredibly sad. I dove with this group on the sister ship Vision in May. Truth Aquatics ran a very professional operation. The crew on Vision were disciplined and safety conscious, and I have little doubt that the crew of Conception were the same and did all they could.

    These boats have been refined over decades of use to allow a large number of people to live and dive comfortably in a relatively small space. But boat design is always a trade-off, and on this, the spotlight will probably fall on the difficulty of egress from the escape hatch at the back of the bunk room…. it would have been hard to get to, and hard to get through – even if not blocked by flames.

    Rest in peace Kendra Chan. She was an angel who loved the beauty of life under the water.

  2. Ken Brinkley 3 years ago

    So incredibly sad. To the survivors, I’m sure you did all you could, try to go easy on yourselves and live your lives with purpose.

  3. John Harvan 3 years ago

    Very sad indeed for a confession which has an impeccable reputation. I can’t help but feel there was a human error. Reputations are built on always doing the right thing EVERY TIME. I can’t see how if a live watch stander was keeping a vigulent watch this tragedy could have been prevented. Time will tell and the investigation will flush out the cause. Often its the basics, such as keeping a sharp lookout, sounding the alarm, being familiar with fire fighting equipment. familiarizing yourself with escape routs should it become necessary
    Let not these lives go tragically in vain, up date your smoke & C.O. detectors, Take course on emergency procedures, review your onboard plan for fire, sinking and other emergencies. Stay vigilant and avoid complacent . The instant you let your guard down tragedy awaits to visit

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