Some dive boat pas­sen­gers didn’t know of es­cape hatch

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Leila Miller, Richard Win­ton and Mark Puente

SANTA BAR­BARA — Months ago, Truth Aquat­ics owner Glen Frit­zler spoke to Ralph A. Cle­venger, who cre­ates vis­ual con­tent for the com­pany, about mak­ing a safety video that would play while pas­sen­gers boarded his dive boats.

The video set­tles briefly on a per­son open­ing the Con­cep­tion’s es­cape hatch. It’s lo­cated un­der­neath a counter in the din­ing area where pas­sen­gers stop by to sign the man­i­fest and bears a red sign with the words “emer­gency exit” and “keep clear.”

Cle­venger, a pho­tog­ra­pher, fin­ished the video the day be­fore a fire on the Con­cep­tion last week killed 34 peo­ple in the worst mar­itime dis­as­ter in mod­ern Cal­i­for­nia his­tory.

Pas­sen­ger knowl­edge of a safety plan aboard the ves­sel now plays a cen­tral part in a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion that is ex­am­in­ing why no one sleep­ing be­low deck was able to es­cape. Law en­force­ment sources have told The Times that a pre­lim­i­nary in­ves­ti­ga­tion found signs of se­ri­ous safety lapses aboard the Con­cep­tion, in­clud­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that pas­sen­gers did not re­ceive thor­ough safety briefings.

The Times spoke to more than a dozen peo­ple who had re­cently been on Truth Aquat­ics boats. Although many re­mem­bered the crew as pro­fes­sional and con­sci­en­tious of safety pro­to­cols, some said that the cap­tain’s

ini­tial safety brief­ing was in­ad­e­quate and that they were never told about the es­cape hatch.

“I have no idea how we would have got­ten out of that room in an emer­gency,” said Josiah Wil­cox of Santa Rosa, who was on the Con­cep­tion in April for a trip with the Sierra Club.

Dou­glas Schwartz, Frit­zler’s crim­i­nal de­fense at­tor­ney, did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Those who died were pre­sumed to have been asleep in the bunk area of the boat. There were two ways out to the deck — a stair­case on one side, the emer­gency hatch on the other.

Both led to the gal­ley area, where some be­lieve the fire may have started. Sur­viv­ing crew mem­bers who were above deck when the fire broke out told Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board in­ves­ti­ga­tors the flames were too in­tense to save any­one.

Still, the hatch has re­ceived scru­tiny from the NTSB. Jen­nifer Homendy, who is lead­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, said she was “taken aback” by the size of the emer­gency hatch when she toured the Vi­sion — an 80foot sis­ter ves­sel to the Con­cep­tion.

“You have to climb up a lad­der and across the top bunk and then push a wooden door up,” she said. “It was a tight space. We couldn’t turn the light on.”

Cle­venger said the video was in­tended to be sim­i­lar to what pas­sen­gers on air­planes watch be­fore take­off. Safety briefings on Truth Aquat­ics boats of­ten take place once the boat has reached its des­ti­na­tion. Frit­zler was look­ing for a way to brief pas­sen­gers be­fore then, he said.

Cle­venger, who has been on hun­dreds of div­ing trips with the com­pany since the 1990s, said the cap­tain would speak from the din­ing area next to the gal­ley and re­fer to a writ­ten script dur­ing the brief­ing. Among other things, he would iden­tify the es­cape hatch, point out the lo­ca­tion of life vests and life rafts, and in­tro­duce the crew.

“I have never heard a cap­tain on any of the boats de­vi­ate from the script, omit things or for­get to say things,” he said. “If they do, the crew mem­bers say ‘Hey, hey.’ ”

He added that lam­i­nated sheets through­out the boat — in­clud­ing in the bunk area — con­tained safety in­for­ma­tion as well.

Oth­ers have said they could not have felt safer among the Con­cep­tion’s crew. Zach Smith of San Luis Obispo, a diver who went on dozens of trips aboard the Con­cep­tion, would typ­i­cally hear Jerry Boy­lan, the cap­tain of the boat the day of the fire, give a 15- to 20-minute safety brief­ing.

He said Boy­lan would in­struct pas­sen­gers not to put any­thing over the es­cape hatch.

“He makes ev­ery­one lis­ten to it whether they’ve been on 100 times or zero times,” said Smith, who was last on the boat in May for a day­long div­ing trip.

Don Barthelmes­s, a re­tired div­ing in­struc­tor who taught at Santa Bar­bara City Col­lege for 30 years, called Boy­lan “the most ex­pe­ri­enced cap­tain in the Santa Bar­bara Chan­nel.”

Barthelmes­s said he char­tered the Vi­sion in May and the crew ex­plained safety pro­ce­dures and pointed out the fire­fight­ing equip­ment.

“They’re very se­ri­ous about boat briefings,” he said. “I can’t think of a sit­u­a­tion where it’s been lax.”

Ben Wolfe, a re­tired Los An­ge­les County fire cap­tain who goes out with Truth Aquat­ics about four times a year, was on the Con­cep­tion for a five-day trip in Au­gust. He said he has never had any safety con­cerns and called the crew “re­ally safety con­scious.”

“They make sure everybody is out of the bunks and everybody is there,” he said of the morn­ing brief­ing.

But some, like Wil­cox, re­call their time on the boat dif­fer­ently.

“On that cruise, it seemed to me the watch­word was ‘safety last,’ ” he said.

He said pas­sen­gers did not re­ceive a safety brief­ing from the time they boarded the boat on Satur­day night to the time they ar­rived at Santa Rosa Is­land about noon the next day. In the time in be­tween, he said, high waves rocked the boat for hours.

“It was ex­tremely rough,” he said. “Peo­ple were get­ting sick left and right. I would have liked to have known where the life pre­servers were.”

Af­ter the boat an­chored, Wil­cox said, Boy­lan gave a safety brief­ing last­ing no longer than five min­utes. He said it mostly con­sisted of point­ing pas­sen­gers to safety cards on ta­bles in the gal­ley area. The cap­tain, he added, did not point out the fire ex­tin­guish­ers on board or men­tion the es­cape hatch.

Yvonne Churchill Rankin of Salt Lake City said she could barely sleep the first cou­ple of nights af­ter hear­ing about the fire.

When she dove with her hus­band last month on the Truth, the Con­cep­tion’s sis­ter ship, she said, the cap­tain failed to show pas­sen­gers where the safety hatch was.

The cap­tain, she said, spoke only gen­er­ally about the boat be­fore the first dive, talk­ing about the re­strooms and telling pas­sen­gers not to go into cer­tain ar­eas if they were wet.

“He made no men­tion of ‘in case the boat runs into trou­ble or we run aground, or if some­one hits us, or if some­one has a med­i­cal emer­gency,’ ” she said. “There was noth­ing of that sort at all.”

One of the Con­cep­tion’s sur­viv­ing crew mem­bers has the­o­rized that a phone charg­ing sta­tion may have caused the fire. Shirley Hansen, the owner of the Grape Es­cape, a fish­ing boat that pro­vided refuge to crew flee­ing the fire, re­called him say­ing that he thought the fire started in the gal­ley, where cell­phones and cam­eras had been plugged in to charge overnight.

On board the Truth, Rankin re­called, there were few out­lets, so pas­sen­gers used a lot of power strips and extension cords were strung about in the gal­ley area and bunk room.

“There was even an extension cord strung up through the lad­der that led up to the safety hatch .... Any­one us­ing the route could have got­ten en­tan­gled in it while try­ing to es­cape,” Rankin said. “Say some­one would be try­ing to es­cape through the hatch, we could have been caught up in the extension cord.”

Sev­eral oth­ers who said there was no men­tion of the es­cape hatch dur­ing their briefings did not re­call other safety is­sues. Emil­iano Wich­t­en­dahl of Santa Bar­bara said the crew did not go over the safety hatch when he was on the Con­cep­tion sev­eral weeks ago. He slept near a stair­case that led out of the bunk room and hadn’t known of an­other exit.

“I just knew the stairs and that’s about it,” he said.

The Coast Guard has is­sued a new na­tional emer­gency safety bul­letin to pas­sen­ger ves­sels in­tended to im­prove safety in the wake of the Con­cep­tion dis­as­ter, call­ing on boat op­er­a­tors na­tion­wide to re­view safety mea­sures, make sure safety equip­ment is op­er­a­tional and re­duce po­ten­tial haz­ards from lithium bat­ter­ies, power strips and extension cords.

The bul­letin also called on op­er­a­tors to “re­view emer­gency du­ties and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties with the crew to en­sure they com­pre­hend and can com­ply with their obli­ga­tions in an emer­gency, in­clud­ing pas­sen­ger safety ori­en­ta­tion, and en­sure that emer­gency es­capes are clearly iden­ti­fied, func­tional and re­main clear of ob­jects that may im­pede egress.”

Fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors spent sev­eral days this week search­ing the Santa Bar­bara Har­bor of­fice of Truth Aquat­ics. The FBI on Tues­day asked to pub­lic for any in­for­ma­tion — in­clud­ing videos and pho­tos — about the Con­cep­tion. Ef­forts to raise the boat from the Santa Bar­bara chan­nel have been re­peat­edly put off due to bad weather. Of­fi­cials now ex­pect the sal­vage process to raise the boat to be­gin Thurs­day or Fri­day.

A sec­ond video that Cle­venger made fea­tures Frit­zler show­ing view­ers where to se­cure their tanks on the boat, hang their wet suits and place their spear guns.

“Glenn was al­ways im­prov­ing the boats,” said Cle­venger. “He wanted some­thing that was a fur­ther re­minder of where to put ev­ery­thing and where all the ba­sic safety fea­tures were on the boat.”

Ralph A. Cle­venger Truth Aquat­ics

A SAFETY VIDEO shows Con­cep­tion’s hatch from the bunk room open­ing to the gal­ley area. Some for­mer pas­sen­gers say they weren’t told of the pas­sage­way.

Ralph A. Cle­venger Truth Aquat­ics

THE SAFETY HATCH of the dive boat Con­cep­tion is marked as the emer­gency exit in a video pro­duced by Ralph Cle­venger for Truth Aquat­ics. The video was in­tended to play as pas­sen­gers boarded the boat.

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