Shortly before the anniversary of California's deadliest maritime disaster in modern history, the National Transportation Safety Board announced it would hold a hearing in October to reveal the results of its investigation into the Conception submersible fire that killed 34 people off Santa Cruz Island .
A preliminary NTSB investigation found that five crew members slept in the wheelhouse and that the ship, operated by Truth Aquatics of Santa Barbara, did not keep a watch during the hours when passengers slept below deck, as was done by the U.S. Coast Guard required .
However, deeper investigation into the origins, causes, and events that led to conception being burned at the waterline has taken months of investigation under the direction of NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy. The Board will vote on outcomes, likely causes, and recommendations for changes to small passenger ships to avoid repeating what its chairman calls a "terrible, terrible tragedy".
"We have essentially completed our investigation," said Eric Weiss, an NTSB spokesman. Weiss said NTSB staff will conduct public interviews, research and other investigative material in the weeks ahead of the public hearing.
The victims' families were informed of the hearing on Monday morning. An investigation by the Times last year found that the U.S. Coast Guard had rejected previous NTSB recommendations for stricter fire safety regulations for small boats. The US Coast Guard has sole authority over such vessels.
The Bureau's National Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Response Team called in to investigate the charred debris is "in the process of finalizing the origin and cause report," said Ginger Colbrun, a spokeswoman for the bureau. The fire is also the subject of a criminal investigation by Coast Guard investigators in consultation with the US attorney in Los Angeles, the FBI and the ATF.
In addition to the NTSB probe, there is an inquiry from the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation. Much of the investigation that day focused on Captain Jerry Boylan's actions that night. Boylan did not publicly comment on the deadly fire.
Boat owner Glen Fritzler said Boylan did everything possible to save lives and one of his lawyers said a crew member checked the galley about half an hour before the fire broke out.
At around 3:30 a.m., September 2, 2019, some crew members were awakened by a loud noise and found the galley and saloon areas of the boat on fire, with the main bedroom directly under the fire in the belly of the boat. The only option for those below was to have two exits into the galley and saloon areas. The surviving crew members tried to make their way to the tangled middle deck, but were repulsed by flames.
Five crew members escaped, while 33 passengers and one crew member sleeping below deck died in the fire. The coroner found that the victims died from inhaling smoke.
After the fire, NTSB and Coast Guard investigators asked questions about the small escape hatch above the bunks of the Vision, a similar ship from Truth Aquatics, and also examined the charging areas where divers plugged numerous lithium-ion batteries into cameras, phones and Computers used.
Some boating safety experts have pointed out the batteries, which have become a staple for divers using them to power underwater equipment such as lights and scooters, as a possible starting point for the fire.
After the design burned down, the Coast Guard recommended that passenger ship owners immediately urge crews "to reduce the potential fire hazard and limit the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and the extensive use of power strips and extension cables."
Fritzler previously told The Times that he believed the batteries were the cause of the conception disaster and that he had received no warnings from authorities on the matter.
In the weeks following the fire, Coast Guard inspectors rushed across the country to inspect small ships that were picking up passengers overnight. The captains told the Times that the inspectors had asked them to make voluntary safety improvements to fire safety, escape hatches, emergency signs, and update guidelines for an all-time clock.
In Congress, Sen Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and representatives of the Santa Barbara area spoke out in favor of a bill to reform boat regulations.