Former passengers of California boat consumed by deadly fire say it always felt safe

Rhonda Ahrens was in complete disbelief when she learned the boat she and her family sailed on for several days for a diving trip last summer went up in flames, taking with it nearly three dozen lives on Monday.

Ahrens, 54, who has hundreds of deep-sea dives under her belt, said she chose the Conception diving boat for her kids’ first sleep aboard diving experience because the boat and its crew had a good reputation.

“It’s beyond comprehension that this happened,” she said. “The crew was always very proactive when we were on it.”

Several former passengers of the Conception, which caught fire early Monday off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, said they were shocked to learn that the boat they felt so safe aboard had become the presumed death place of 34 people.

The 75-foot commercial diving vessel, carrying 33 passengers and six crew members, became engulfed in flames around 3:30 a.m. Monday. Five crew members survived after jumping off the ship shortly after the fire broke out.

The others were presumed dead after authorities called off search efforts Tuesday.

“It is never an easy decision to suspend search efforts,” said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester. But no signs of distress had been found during the 24-hour-long search and “we should all be prepared to move into the worst outcome,” she said.

The boat, which is owned and operated by Truth Aquatics out of Santa Barbara and has been offering diving excursions since the 1970s, has been a popular diving vessel for hundreds of guests, including actor Rob Lowe, who said he’s been on the boat “many times.”

“My heart breaks for those onboard the Conception. An unspeakable horror on a boat I’ve been on many times. My prayers and thoughts are with the families,” Lowe tweeted on Tuesday.

The boat was on a three-day $665 diving excursion “to explore the pinnacles of San Miguel Island,” according to a Truth Aquatics schedule. It departed Saturday morning and was due back Monday evening.

Izaak Velaz has taken the same trip on Conception several times. His last time on the boat was in March.

“My trips on the Conception were always very smooth and uneventful, he said. “At no time during those trips did I feel unsafe, nor did I see any items that I would have considered red flags,” he said.

This is truly an unfortunate accident for those divers and their families, he added.

Penny Gomez, 49, who been on the boat three times, echoed similar sentiments.

“They’ve never had problems on that boat when I was on it,” she said. “Its a little cramped but that’s how dive boats are, its not a luxury dive boat.”

Colleen Casey, 63, signed up for a hiking excursion on Conception last November and remembers a professional environment despite feeling claustrophobic in the sleeping area on the bottom level of the boat.

“I felt completely comfortable, absolutely 100 percent on that boat,” she said. “When I went to bed, that was the only thing because its very coffin-like on those bunks.”

Despite the tight quarters, Casey said she still felt safe, adding that the captain was always on top of everything.

Investigators are now shifting their focus to what caused the fire, and some of the boat’s previous patrons have started piecing together every moment in hindsight, wondering if there was anything amiss.

Abby Arieef, 37, spent several days on the boat for a whale watching trip last March and said she wasn’t given a safety briefing while on board.

“I don’t recall them ever telling us where any of the [safety] equipment was,” she said.

Jason Alexander, 39, who has been on the boat three times before and would actually only request the Conception when signing up for diving trips, was also thinking back to his experiences.

“I cannot remember there being an emergency exit from the bunk area. I have been told that there is, but I don’t recall ever seeing it,” he said. He also added that the narrow staircase from the bottom bunk area to the upper deck was a “bottleneck” that could have caused issues for passengers trying to get out in an emergency.

Yet Alexander, who was “in tears” when he found out about the boat fire said he is still confident that the captain and crew were always “safety oriented.”

Rhonda Ahrens said the incident won’t deter her from diving but she will now be even more aware of safety precautions.