Potential grounds for criminal charges in Conception disaster come to surface

Emily Peterson, News Editor

Last week, the Horizon covered the terrible Conception dive boat fire, which killed 34 people in the worst maritime disaster in Santa Barbara’s history. 

A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) stated that at the time of the fire, all six crew members on board the Conception were asleep, with one in the bunkroom on the lower deck and the others in berths behind the uppermost-deck wheelhouse.

Awoken by the fire, which broke out early in the morning, the crewmembers above deck immediately attempted to reach the passengers and crew member sleeping in the bunkroom. In order to access the lower decks, crew on the upper level had to first traverse the main deck, but the ladder downwards was on fire and unusable. Crewmembers instead jumped onto the main deck, one breaking his leg in the process. 

All methods of accessing the bunkroom on the lower deck were inaccessible due to overwhelming fire and thick smoke, making rescue attempts impossible. The five crewmembers on the main deck jumped overboard. Unable to escape, the 34 people in the bunkroom perished. 

Upon swimming to the other end of the Conception and reboarding, no fire was seen in the engine room. Crewmembers searched for survivors around the hull, but found none.

By morning, the Conception had sunk in waters approximately 60 feet deep. The wreckage was successfully salvaged on Thursday, Sept. 12, and is at the Port Hueneme naval base in Ventura County as of Sunday, Sept. 15 for investigation.

As of Sunday, Sept. 15, the source of the fire has yet to be determined. The final body has been recovered, and all 34 victims have been identified, with the majority being California residents and others living in Arizona and Connecticut. 

According to the NTSB’s preliminary report, no watchman had been appointed on the Conception that night, preventing those on board from discovering the fire until it was too late. The lack of a night watchman, which is required by law on boats like the Conception, could be grounds for criminal charges against Truth Aquatics. 

An attorney for Truth Aquatics, Douglas Schwartz, claimed to the contrary that a crew member had “checked on and around the galley area” 45 minutes before the fire broke out, though Schwartz did not state whether or not that a night watchman had actually been appointed.

Michael Turndoff, another attorney involved in the case, stated that if no watchman had been assigned, especially on “a boat that far offshore”, that a law known as the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute, which provides grounds for criminal liability for owners and officers of vessels in cases of negligence, could be invoked in a case like the Conception’s.

In light of the Conception disaster, the United States Coast Guard has introduced updated emergency recommendations regarding the use of extension cords, lithium batteries, and powers strips onboard vessels. 

The Coast Guard also recommends ensuring that safety equipment is in working order, that crew and owners familiarize themselves with emergency procedures onboard their vessels, and that passenger accommodation spaces are in condition conducive to safety.