It's been almost exactly a year since 34 people perished in a fire aboard a scuba tour boat off the Santa Barbara coast, many of them Bay Area and Santa Cruz residents. Now, via just-released documents from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), we hear directly from the surviving crew members who were forced to abandon ship knowing that nearly three dozen people were going to be burned alive below deck.
The story was so ghastly and tragic as to not make any sense. 33 scuba tourists and one crew member, all asleep on the lowest deck of a 75-foot dive boat called Conception moored off the coast of Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands, became trapped when a sudden fire tore through the vessel at 3:14 a.m. on September 2, 2019. None survived, but five crew members who were also asleep but on a different deck, made it out alive after being unable to do anything to save the people below deck.
According to the NTSB documents, per the Chronicle, there was never a scream, never so much as a bang on the hull of the ship from the trapped passengers.
Deckhand Milton French relays his horror after the fire began consuming the ship, and as he realized that among the 34 people on the lowest deck was his girlfriend and fellow deckhand Allie Kurtz.
French said, in his account, "I mean, I think there’s fucking 34 people down there the whole time that we were trying to get to, but then like specifically Allie popped in my head… I could keep breathing. For how long, I don’t know, but it was like a furnace. So I just kind of stood and looked, and like tried to work up the nerve to fucking run into it."
Captain Jerry Boylan reportedly stopped French from running into the flames, and instructed him to get into a lifeboat.
"So I turned to him and asked him, like, ‘How do I get into the bunk-room? Just tell me how,’" French said. "I’m like pleading with him to tell me like the fucking magical solution here because I wasn’t finding one. And he just kept saying, ‘We can’t, we can’t.’"
Boylan himself ended up jumping into the water to escape the flames, after the wheelhouse became engulfed in smoke while he was issuing the mayday call that was first reported last year. "Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! I can’t breathe!"
Cullen Molitor, the boat’s second captain, jumped into the water after Boylan, believing he may have been on fire after seeing a trail of smoke follow him down. Molitor told NTSB investigators, "The only thing [Boylan] was saying, as he was looking back toward the boat was, 'It’s just all those people.' And, you know, you could just see the whole galley was fully engulfed. And he wasn’t sure if anyone had gotten out. None of us were at that point."
The accounts confirm what had been suspected at the beginning of the investigation: all six crew members were asleep when the fire began, which is a violation of maritime law.
As the Associated Press reports, the cause of the fire remains officially undetermined, but the documents point to a likely culprit. One crew member, Ryan Sims, described seeing sparks when he tried plugging in his cellphone the previous day. And investigators are suggesting that the cause may have been multiple phones and other devices plugged into outlets for charging.
Sims, who broke his leg while escaping the boat, is suing the charter company and the vessel's owners, claiming the boat was unsafe. He also claims that Boylan neglected to go over emergency procedures with the crew, putting it off to a later time — and the crew members told investigators that they had no received any training in the use of fire extinguishers.
The families of 32 of the victims have also filed claims against boat owners Glen and Dana Fritzler, and the Santa Cruz-based charter company, Truth Aquatics.
One of the victims, Kristy Finstad, was the daughter of the company's owner and was leading the tour group.
Photo via Ventura Fire Department