ATF report: Fatal Conception fire started in plastic trash can

NTSB investigator Jennifer Homendy and Coast Guard Capt. Jason Neubauer

(WASHINGTON) — The fire that killed 34 people aboard the dive boat Conception in 2019 near Santa Cruz Island in California started in a plastic trash can on the main deck, according to a new report by the Los Angeles Times.

The newspaper said it reviewed a 197-page confidential report prepared by investigators with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Investigators from other agencies previously speculated that the fire most likely was caused by lithium-ion batteries aboard the 75-foot wooden-hull boat.

To come to their conclusion, ATF investigators reportedly built a full-scale mock-up of Conception’s middle deck and conducted a series of burn tests.

The fire started in the pre-dawn hours on Sept. 2, 2019, as Conception was anchored off the island. Thirty-three passengers and one crewmember were trapped below the main deck and died in the fire. Five crewmembers who were asleep on the top deck escaped the flames and survived.

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) focused on charging areas where divers plugged in lithium-ion batteries used for electronics. The agency was unable to conclusively determine what caused the fire, however, saying it most likely was caused by “the electrical distribution system of the vessel, unattended batteries being charged, improperly discarded smoking materials, or another undetermined ignition source.”

The ATF said it found no evidence to support that the fire started where lithium batteries had been charging, although it noted that such batteries can ignite when they malfunction, the Times reported. The agency did not say what might have ignited the fire in the trash can.

NTSB investigator Jennifer Homendy and Coast Guard Capt. Jason Neubauer
NTSB investigator Jennifer Homendy, left, and Coast Guard Capt. Jason Neubauer tour the berthing area of Vision, a sister vessel to Conception, on Sept. 4, 2019 in Santa Barbara, Calif. NTSB photo
By Professional Mariner Staff