A grim insight into what happened during the fatal Conception liveaboard fire in California three years ago has emerged in the shape of footage recovered from a female diver’s mobile phone. The FBI has shown the video clip to some relatives of the 34 divers who died in the lower-deck bunk-room on 2 September, 2019.
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The clip confirms that the victims were not overcome by smoke in their sleep, as initially reported, but were struggling to find an exit as flames engulfed the vessel and smoke entered the bunk-room.
The 23m, three-deck Conception was anchored off Santa Cruz Island when it caught fire in the early hours of the morning. Now a report in the Los Angeles Times shows how the 33 guests and one crew-member had woken to find themselves trapped, their only two exit routes blocked by fire.
The realisation that at least some of the victims had been awake is reported to have arisen after shoes were found on bodies recovered from the charred wreck of the Conception. Damaged mobile phones were also found and the video was extracted from one of these by FBI forensics analysts. The phone appeared to have been deliberately placed to capture the scene.
The recording was made at 3.17am, three minutes after Conception’s Captain Jerry Boylan had issued an emergency call and jumped into the water with the four crew who had been sleeping in the wheelhouse.
By this time flames had engulfed the main deck and galley on the level above the bunk-room, blocking the stairway and a small emergency hatch above one of the double-deck bunks.
‘Trying to problem-solve’
The fire alarm is said to be sounding in the video, with smoke seen issuing from ceiling fans and the stairwell. It is unclear whether the 24-second clip shown to those relatives who opted to see it was a segment of more extensive footage or all that was recovered, but it is reported to reveal a “relatively calm but increasingly desperate” scene.
One relative told the paper that, although desperate to escape, the guests had maintained a calmness that perhaps “reflected their experience as divers who were used to dealing with potentially dangerous situations”.
But another said that they “died terrified, knowing they were going to die. Even there at the end, they weren’t giving up. They are trying to problem-solve.” A coroner’s report has determined that all 34 people died of smoke inhalation.
The Conception had been exempted from US Coast Guard escape-route regulations because of “grandfather rights”, according to an earlier report by the LA Times. It was said to be considered impractical to impose the latest safety standards on older commercial vessels.
Escape hatches at the time were supposed to be at least 81cm wide and to have illuminated exit signs. Conception, built in 1981, had a 61cm hatch and no illuminated signs, although it is unclear whether this would have made any difference in the circumstances.
Boylan is facing seaman’s manslaughter charges and was due to appear in court this month. Families of the victims are suing Conception operator Truth Aquatics and its owners Glen & Dana Fritzler for wrongful death and negligence, and also the Coast Guard for wrongful death as a result of inspection failures.