Crewmembers Who Survived California Boat Fire Explain Why 34 People Died

The crewmembers of the Conception, the boat which burned off the coast of Southern California killing 34 people inside (33 passengers, 1 crew member), are recounting the events leading up to the disaster and offering an explanation for what happened to those who lost their lives.

The Associated Press reports the crew explained to investigators that they attempted to rescue those who were sleeping in lower quarters on the ship but were unable to do so due to the flames, smoke, and immense heat.

From the report:

Speculation has grown about whether the captain and four other crew members who survived had tried to help others before jumping from the flaming vessel. Authorities said those sleeping in bunks below the main deck were trapped by the fire.

But crew members told investigators that by the time they saw flames, it was too late.

Crew members jumped from the bridge area to the main deck — one breaking a leg in the effort — and tried to get through the double doors of the galley but they were aflame.

That cut off both escape routes for the 33 passengers and a crew member in the bunkroom: a stairway and an escape hatch that exited in the galley area.

The crew then tried but failed to get into windows at the front of the vessel.

“At that point, due to heat, flames and smoke, the crew had to jump from the boat,” Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday, per the report.

Homendy recounted how the crew then swam to the back of the boat and tried to enter from there to access fire-fighting equipment. They were unable to do so.

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The Associated Press reports Glen Fritzler, co-owner of Truth Aquatics, Inc. of Santa Barbara, which operated Conception, said Captain Jerry Boylan was the last person to jump into the water as he remained onboard repeatedly sending out distress calls.

“The other crew at a certain point when the flames had engulfed the boat and they were in the water, they could see Jerry jump from the upper deck, a long jump. And there was a trail of smoke following him. They thought he was on fire,” Fritzler reportedly told KEYT-TV, an ABC-affiliated television station in Santa Barbara.

“Within minutes they would’ve been consumed,” he continued per the report. “So they did their best. They did re-enter the vessel from the back of the boat after they swam around it. They could not get to firefighting equipment because everything was engulfed.”

According to the report, investigators are still undergoing what is expected to be a lengthy venture into finding the origins of the flames and potentially who will be held liable:

Searchers recovered 33 bodies and continued searching in the waters just off Santa Cruz Island for the lone remaining victim.

Meanwhile, Truth Aquatics filed a lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles that uses a pre-Civil War provision of maritime law to limit their liability from any victims’ claims. The lawsuit argues the company and owners Glen and Dana Fritzler made the boat seaworthy and the craft was properly manned and equipped.

Coast Guard records show the boat passed its two most recent inspections with no safety violations.

Previous patrons said Truth Aquatics and the captains of its three boats were very safety-conscious.

The NTSB is just a few days into what will be a lengthy investigation that seeks to determine the cause of the fire and identify potential safety enhancements to avoid future disasters. Investigators are examining potential ignition sources for the fire, including electronics, kitchen stoves and the vessel’s wiring systems. Investigators know photography equipment, batteries and other electronics were stored and plugged in on the Conception.