Boating Disaster Aboard the Conception Investigated

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September 21, 2019
Edward Smith

Investigators Look in Deadly Boat Accident

Almost two weeks after the September 2 boating disaster that claimed 34 lives aboard the Conception, some questions about what happened on that fateful night are being answered. The 75-foot Conception was nearing the last day of a 3-day diving excursion around the Channel Islands National Park, located west of the California coast. The blaze erupted at about 3:00 a.m. as the Conception was anchored in Platt’s Harbor. Everyone who died was in a lower deck sleeping quarter. This area had two exits: an escape hatch and a stairway leading out of the sleeping quarters, both of which were blocked by flames. The crew members, aside from the one who was asleep below, left the boat. The crew said at the time, they tried to reach the passengers, but the flames stopped them. The crew, including the Captain, departed the boat using an inflatable boat, reached a fishing vessel, the Grape Escape. Investigations into the boating disaster began almost immediately. 

Sleeping Quarters

As the investigation into the boating disaster aboard the Conception continues, reports of inconsistencies regarding the escape routes are mounting. The design of the Conception was similar to other such vessels with the sleeping quarters below with 33 bunks (20 singles and 13 doubles) stacked on top of one another, sometimes three high. The galley is on an upper deck with a diving area at the stern. At the very top is the wheel-house. The exits for those in the sleeping quarters were blocked by flames, and questions about their size and placement are mounting. While some passengers said that the accommodations were comfortable, others said they felt like cattle packed into a small space. Chris Barry, chairman of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, said the arrangement is perfectly legal while admitting that the quarters are somewhat cramped. 

Escape Routes

After the Conception boating disaster, the majority of questions centered on exits leading from the sleeping quarters to the top deck. Jennifer Homendy with the National Transportation Safety Board said she was taken aback by the evacuation portals given to passengers below deck on the Vision, a sister vessel to the Conception. The placement and size of the emergency hatch were of particular concern. The escape hatch was at the rear of the sleeping area located above the bunks with a wooden door that needed to be lifted. The hatch was small so passengers would only be able to exit one by one. 

Current Regulations Were Met

The Conception met current federal regulations requiring that there be two exits that included stairs and an escape hatch. The regulations also state that the exits be of sufficient width to allow for a rapid evacuation of people. They were to be spaced far enough apart to ensure that all passengers can exit, and both exits would not be blocked in a disaster. John McDevitt, who is a certified marine surveyor and chair of the National Fire Protection Association, said that the Conception was a fire hazard despite being compliant with federal regulations. 

Crew Asleep

All crew members were asleep when the fire began above deck in the wheelhouse. One crew member said he looked out to find the vessel ablaze. The members of the crew, including the captain, left the Conception. At first, a crew member postulated that the fire may have started in the galley above the sleeping quarters where cell phones were being charged. The fact that all crew members were asleep is also against maritime regulations. A vessel like the Conception should have a roaming crew member at night to spot problems. 

Petition to Lower Payout for Boating Disaster

The owners of the Conception have filed a petition, citing an 1851 maritime statute, to limit the amount they have to pay to the families of those who died in this boating disaster. The 19th-century law can be used to eliminate any funds being paid or limit it to the value of the boat after the fire. The motion was filed on September 5 before all the bodies were located. 

Sacramento Wrongful Death Lawyer

I’m Ed Smith, a Sacramento wrongful death lawyer. When a family member dies due to negligence, you can file a lawsuit. While the compensation your family receives will never lessen the overwhelming grief you feel, it will place the burden on the offending party. No family should suffer the loss of a loved one when it is caused by another’s negligence. Call me for free and friendly advice about this at (916) 921-6400 or at (800) 404-5400. You can also reach out to me online if that is easier for you.

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