Cause of One of Worst US Boat Tragedies Is Still a Mystery

34 people on diving excursion were killed off the California coast last year
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 28, 2020 11:11 AM CST
Updated Mar 1, 2020 10:30 AM CST
We Still Don't Why This Boat Tragedy Happened
In this Sept. 2, 2019, file photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the dive boat Conception is engulfed in flames off the Southern California Coast.   (Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP, File)

"Mayday, mayday, mayday." Those three words sent at 3:14am on Sept. 2 were the first inkling of the tragedy unfolding aboard a boat anchored near Santa Cruz Island off the California coast. As a story at Outside recounts, 34 people would die after fire broke out aboard the Conception, making it one of the deadliest maritime disasters in US history. Six months later, we still don't know the cause, and as Kathryn Miles writes, we may never know. Of the victims, 32 were customers on the boat owned by Truth Aquatics and chartered by Worldwide Diving Adventures. The others were a crew member and a dive leader. What seems clear is that all were sleeping when the fire broke out, and none had a chance. “With a fire on a modern craft, there’s a lot of plastic and materials that are going to release lethal chemicals,” says Douglas Arenberg, a pulmonologist. "It's a nightmare scenario."

The captain and four crew members who were sleeping on the top deck were the only survivors, and they say attempts to save anyone were impossible. The story explores the dive-excursion industry (where tragedies like these "aren't entirely uncommon") and looks into the theory that charging electrical devices caused the fire. At this point, however, it is only a theory. In fact, the widower of a woman killed (they were the husband-and-wife team who ran WDA and chartered the boat) says public speculation about charging devices by investigators in the aftermath was irresponsible and close to "victim blaming." Other factors such as electrical wiring and galley equipment are being looked at in the ongoing federal investigation. Miles notes that if the investigation finds that no crew members were on watch overnight, the captain or boat owner could face a 10-year prison term. (Read the full story.)

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