(CN) — Amid the pandemonium of the Conception boat fire, a half-asleep crew stumbled around the upper decks in the early morning of Sept. 3, 2019, as a fire ripped through the lower decks where 33 passengers and one crew member slept off the coast of Santa Cruz Island in Southern California.
All surviving crew members said they were untrained in emergency procedures on the vessel, according to federal investigators in a cache of documents released Wednesday.
One crew member told investigators, “I didn’t know what the procedures were supposed to be.”
More than a year after the 75-foot dive boat caught fire around 3:30 a.m., the exact cause of the blaze remains unknown, according to National Transportation Safety Board investigators.
Two surviving crew members thought the captain was on fire when he jumped into the water.
Crew members told investigators the fire prevented them from reaching an escape hatch and a stairway leading out of the lower deck on the 41-year old vessel.
One crew member died with the passengers, but five other crew members were able to jump off the boat and swim to a nearby vessel. In the NTSB factual report, one surviving crew member said he “saw sparks” when he plugged his cell phone to charge it via an outlet. Other crew members recall some of the electronics, like phones and tablets, were plugged in wet because they had just come out of the water on other trips.
“The first deckhand said that it was not uncommon to have batteries charging next to camera equipment that was still drying after a dive,” according to the report. On the day the vessel caught fire, crew members say that at least one passenger-owned power strip was used to recharge electronics.
The report says current and former employees on board Truth Aquatics vessels, the company that owned the Conception, were offered a job if they were deemed a “good fit” by the captain.
Aside from first aid and CPR training, crew members were given individual training from the captain on equipment and operating emergency procedures, but three crew members told investigators they had not participated in a fire drill on Conception.
“The first deckhand stated that he had never pulled out a firehose on the vessel and had ‘never done a dry run on anything, with the exception of during the Coast Guard inspections,’” according to the report.
The deckhand said they participated in one fire drill on another Truth Aquatics’ vessel during a Coast Guard inspection.
“Other former crew members told investigators that they had never participated in a fire drill,” says the report.
Any records on training activities or logs for fire drills would have been kept on the boat, say Truth Aquatics’ owners. A 2017 Coast Guard annual inspection reported the logs on Conception were not up to date.
Some crew members said they were given literature that detailed emergency procedures. One crew member said they asked the captain to discuss the procedures on the day before the fire, but was told they would review the book “when we have time.”
Early reports from NTSB said that all crewmembers were asleep when the fire broke out.
Shortly before the crew knew about the fire below deck, one crew member heard someone had fallen.
“He continued to lay in his bunk, and, between 5 and 15 minutes later by his estimation, he heard a voice yell, ‘ahhh!’ He told investigators that ‘it was definitely a human voice.’ The second galleyhand got out of his bunk to go check on the person and, looking out through the aft door of the crew stateroom area, saw a yellow glow emanating from below the aft starboard side of the sun deck,” according to the report.
Crew members shouted and one reported hearing “a pop, and then a crackle downstairs.”
The second galleyhand ran to a staircase at the rear of the boat and when he looked down, he saw a restroom was on fire and flames blocked the way.
The crew continued to try to get below deck as a faint, “really quiet, really distant” alarm sounded.
One crew member recalled a fire axe in the vessel’s wheelhouse, but that’s when the crew saw the captain leap into the water after he tried to make a distress call. One crew member broke his leg while jumping from one deck to another.
Families of several passengers filed wrongful death claims, arguing the fire could have been prevented if it wasn’t for Truth Aquatics’ inadequate life-saving systems and its failure to maintain a safety watch through the night.