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Former crewman, captain of the Conception — the boat that caught fire in Southern California — explains safety measures

"The escape hatches – they are there – they just weren't utilized. I think this fire happened so fast, and there's nothing that could have been done."

SACRAMENTO, California — As investigators continue to work to determine the cause of boat fire in Southern California, a former captain of the company that owned the Conception explained why he believes most of the crew survived and the passengers did not.

Thirty-nine people including six crew members were aboard the vessel Conception when it caught fire early Monday morning while anchored off Santa Cruz Island.

"I think that the flames were engulfed so much that the captain was up on the wheelhouse trying to put out this mayday call and the flames were coming up on him," said Chris Connelly, a former crewman and captain with Truth Aquatics. "I think he probably had to bail off of the boat with the rest of the crew because that's where the crew sleeps — is up on the wheelhouse."

Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Bill Brown said there were multiple mayday calls that may have been conflated. There was an initial mayday call that may have come from The Conception "when mayday was put out and information that the person couldn't breath" could be heard.

Five crew members jumped in the ocean and were rescued by a good Samaritan boat called "The Grape Escape." Another mayday call was sent out by surviving crew from the rescue boat, according to USCG Capt. Monica Rochester.

An unidentified voice on the mayday call could be heard mentioning locked doors to the below deck where passengers were sleeping. Rochester explained that there were no locked doors from the sleep deck to the top deck.


According to Brown, the boat had three decks — the sleeping deck was the lowest, the second deck had the galley and the third was the crew's sleeping quarters and the bridge.

"It would be perfectly normal for the crew to be up on that third deck. It was their assigned location to sleep, and the bridge of the vessel was up there as well,' Brown says.

Brown says it appears the sleeping passengers on the third deck were trapped. "There was a stair well to get up and down the main entry, and there was an escape hatch and it would appear as though both of those were blocked by fire.

Connelly told ABC10 the only door on the boat never gets closed or locked.

"Every time before that boat goes out, there is a safety briefing and when you come onto the boat and you walk through the big door, there's a sign in sheet and you have to sign your name onto a manifest," said Connelly.

Under that document, Connelly explained, is where the escape hatch is located.

"We don't know until this investigation goes further and they find out what happened, but to say that it started out as a small fire –  I don't think so," Connelly said.

Connelly said fire prevention is a top priority for the owners of Truth Aquatics.

"Fire is very scary on a boat, so we do everything that we possibly can to prevent it," explained Connelly. "The escape hatches – they are there –  they just weren't utilized. I think this fire happened so fast, and there's nothing that could have been done. There's no lock on the doors and there's no propane on the boat to explode."

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