All six crew members aboard the commercial diving vessel Conception were asleep at the time fire broke out aboard the 75-foot commercial diving vessel Sept. 2. One crew member and all 33 passengers perished when the ship sank in Platts Harbor off Santa Cruz Island.

Those stark facts are in the preliminary report issued yesterday by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on the incident, which occurred on the last night of a three-day diving trip to the Channel Islands.

Woke up and saw fire

The report paints a harrowing picture of the frenzied activity that occurred aboard the three-level wood and fiberglass vessel once a crewmember sleeping in a wheelhouse berth was awakened by a noise, got up to investigate and saw a fire at the aft end of the sun deck, rising up from the salon compartment below. The crewmember alerted his co-workers and the captain radioed a distress message to the Coast Guard at approximately 3:14 a.m.

The crewmembers attempted to access the salon and passengers below. Unable to use the aft ladder, which was on fire, the crewmembers jumped down to the main deck (one crewmember broke his leg in the process) and tried to access the salon and galley compartment, which was fully engulfed by fire at the aft end and by thick smoke in the forward end, through a forward window. Unable to open the window and overwhelmed by smoke, the crew jumped overboard.

Access blocked by fire

Two crewmembers and the captain swam to the stern, reboarded the vessel, opened the hatch to the engine room, and saw no fire. Access to the salon through the aft doors was blocked by fire, so they launched a small skiff and picked up the remaining two crewmembers in the water. They transferred to a recreational vessel anchored nearby (Grape Escape) where the captain continued to radio for help, while two crewmembers returned to the Conception to search for survivors around the burning hull. Local Coast Guard and fire departments arrived on scene to extinguish the fire and conduct search and rescue. The vessel burned to the waterline by morning and subsequently sank in about 60 feet of water.

The Conception was owned and operated by Truth Aquatics, Inc.

A "major marine casualty"

The NTSB said initial interviews of three crewmembers have revealed that no mechanical or electrical issues were reported. The incident has been declared a major marine casualty by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Investigators have collected documents from recent Coast Guard inspections and visited another Truth Aquatics vessel, Vision, a vessel similar to the Conception. Salvage operations to bring the wreckage to the surface for examination and documentation have begun. Investigators plan to examine current regulations regarding vessels of this type, year of build, and operation; early-warning and smoke-detection and alarm systems; evacuation routes; training; and current company policies and procedures. Efforts continue to determine the source of the fire.