OPERATORS of the boat that burst into flames killing 34 people off California have been accused of cutting corners, failing to conduct safety briefings and leaving inexperienced divers without help.
At least 25 people are dead and nine missing after an inferno ripped through the upper deck of the Conception near Santa Cruz island in the early hours of Monday.
The victims include three sisters celebrating their dad’s birthday and a 17-year-old girl.
Today The Sun Online revealed a string of past diving tragedies leading to nine deaths and 12 injuries on the Conception and two other boats operated by Truth Aquatics.
The company and its crew were not blamed for the deaths in US Coastguard reports.
Now a couple who took a similar dive trip with the firm to the same islands two weeks ago have spoken out about a litany of safety failings they encountered on board the Conception’s sister vessel Truth.
Experienced divers Yvonne and Steve Rankin said they were provided with no safety briefing, no one checked their diving certificates and no crew members conducted safety checks on their equipment prior to diving – all standard practices.
‘NO SAFETY BRIEFING AT ALL’
Yvonne, 45, described how they were “packed like sardines” in the sleeping quarters of the boat below deck, which had only one escape hatch similar to the Conception – and she woke up panicking one night that she’d “never make it out alive” if anything happened to her.
She told The Sun Online: “There was probably just as many experienced divers as inexperienced divers on that boat.
“I’d say there were probably ten divers that this was their first ocean dive. And there were three teenagers on the boat – so essentially children.
“But it doesn’t matter how experienced you are you have to do a safety presentation every single time.
“They did not carry out a safety briefing at all, nothing.”
“My husband is a certified dive instructor and very safety-conscious so he found the only fire extinguisher on the boat – at least we think that was the only one, no one pointed any out to us.
“All as they said is go into the galley and sign the book and that’s all they told us to do.
“They had us read through the book but it didn’t really explain anything, just about eating times and some general rules of the boat.”
Yvonne believes the crew were cutting corners in order to run back-to-back trips with different passengers and crews.
She said: “The last dive of the day they were yelling at us to get out of the water so that we can hurry up and get on the boat and get back to Santa Barbara harbour because they’re ready to pick up the next crew.
“They’re just shoving people in like sardines, pushing them out and getting the next one in.
“When you don’t follow proper protocols and procedures something is going to get dropped.
“They did not check our log books. They did not check our certification card. These are all procedures they are supposed to follow.”
Husband Steve, 56, a certified dive instructor who has sailed on both Truth and the Conception, said he witnessed the same safety lapses.
He said: “The first thing they do is when you come on to a boat is they want to see your certification and the crew usually does this – but on this trip they didn’t once ask for anybody’s certification cards.
“Every single live-aboard I’ve been on, they always do a safety briefing at 9am and they make sure everyone is there.
“They go through all the safety features of the boat – where the lifejackets are located in case of emergency, where the lifeboats are, how they deploy – but nothing like that was given, absolutely nothing.
“There were a lot of things that were highly unusual about this trip. The crew are usually more friendly and attentive to their passengers and usually very safety-conscious.
“Usually they help you do a little safety check before you get in the water but I don’t think I had anybody help me – I got into the water by myself every single time.
“A lot of the divers were from the shop I instruct for so I would walk around making sure their gear was hooked up correctly so I was doing the safety checks and then a young lady came and asked me to check her gear and I said ‘sure’.
“She told me it was her first ocean dive since becoming certified and she didn’t have a diving buddy so I said she could dive with me, which she did.
“There were just a lot of things that added up to an unsafe environment.
“There was one crew member who took an active interest in us – but one crew member is not going to make a difference for a whole group.”
The couple, from Salt Lake City, Utah, said that no one on the Truth pointed out the safety hatch – which allows people to escape from the sleeping quarters in the case of an emergency.
Those who died in Monday’s fire on the Conception are believed to have become trapped in the below-deck sleeping cabin which was lined with bunk beds.
Yvonne said: “The bunk area is very tight quarters. I understand that it’s a little different on the Truth than the Conception but on the Truth there is only one opening area you walk down and that is the only way out on the stern of the ship.
“But we were in towards the bow of the ship and my husband pointed out to me later on the second day where the safety hatch was and that’s the only way people in the front of the boat would be able to get out – but no one told us that, no crew members, no one.
‘YOU’RE TRAPPED DOWN THERE’
“The first night we slept I felt so claustrophobic and scared and I remember thinking if something happened here – there’s no way we’d get out of here alive. There’s no way we can get out of here.
“There were three bunks on one side and two on the other, backed up like 20 to 25 people on each side and the walkways are tiny. It’s a poor design of the ship. You’re trapped down there.”
Yvonne revealed how a number of other things concerned her – including rowdy passengers staying up late into the night and linens not being changed in between trips.
She said: “It seems trivial when people have lost their lives – but when you don’t pay attention to detail, problems happen.”
Yvonne complained to Truth Aquatics and left negative reviews on Facebook and Google to warn future passengers.
The couple, who both said they were “heartbroken” when they heard of Monday’s fire, now hope there is a thorough investigation into any safety lapses that may have contributed to it.
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Steve, a former police officer, added: “What I’d also like to see more of is better training for crew members to be able to fight fires in case a situation like this happens.
“Double the number of fire extinguishers available so passengers can at least have the chance to fight the fire themselves.
“From what I’m reading I don’t think the crew had any firefighting training whatsoever.”
Sun Online reached out to Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics for comment.
Marine biologist Kirsty Finstad – who was leading the diving expedition – is among the missing[/caption]