Local divers with experience on the Conception, the boat that went up in flames early Labor Day morning, want to know what could have gone wrong on a boat they revere as one of the safest in the industry.
“It’s one of the most respected dive boat operators on the West Coast,” said Scuba San Diego CEO and master diver of 51 years, Rod Watkins said about Truth Aquatics, the company that owns the Conception. “I don’t know anyone who has anything bad to say about that operation.”
Watkins dived off the Conception many years ago when it was owned by boat captain Roy Hauser.
He said the Conception’s crew always has made safety its top priority, and his heart sank when he saw the Conception in flames on Monday morning.
His thoughts immediately turned toward a friend of his who regularly works its crew.
“I called her yesterday, and we didn’t get a response, it was pretty worrisome,” said Watkins.
He later found out she is safe and happened to not be working the Conception over Labor Day weekend.
Watkins said crew members on the 75-foot diving boat usually sleep in quarters on top of the boat overnight, and the divers would sleep under the deck.
“There is two escape routes out of that hull that I know of. One is ladder and one is the hatch. If you got 30 divers at the bottom of that and you got a flash fire, it’s hard to imagine how difficult it would be for everybody to be calm and clear and get out of there… The hatch would be easy to escape from in a slow moving situation but in a fast moving fire, if you had a big person, could be real difficult,” he explained.
Another diver who is familiar with the Conception, Steve Barber, said he has dived off the Conception too many times to count. He said the hatch is a small hole that is only about two-and a-half feet above a top bunk.
“Those big boats often have gasoline or propane for the kitchen, and combine that with a fire that gets out of control, it’s going to get serious really fast,” said Watkins. “The crew knows where the extinguishers are, there are automatic extinguishers that go off. From hearing the crew jumped in the water, it would seem to me the fire was so fast moving that it was a matter of life or death and they couldn’t get to the guests.”
He said, like everyone else, he will wait to find out how this fire could have started and gone so wrong, so fast.
“We will wait and see,” said Watkins.
NTSB investigators are working with the Coast Guard to figure out the cause of the fire.
The U.S. Coast Guard says 34 people are presumed dead and said Tuesday their rescue mission had transitioned into a recovery mission.
Five crew members were rescued, and the bodies of 20 victims have been recovered so far. Many need to be identified by DNA analysis, and officials are collecting samples from family members.
A GoFundMe page was launched to help raise funds for the funerals of a San Diego woman, two of her sisters, her father and her father's wife. All five were killed in the fire.