The dive community is reeling after a catastrophic fire onboard Truth Aquatics Conception in Southern California left 34 people dead. Five crew members were able to escape the flames by jumping off the boat, but 33 divers and one crew member, who was also sleeping below decks, lost their lives in the pre-dawn hours of September 2nd.
Underwater photographer, filmmaker, motivational speaker and longtime ocean advocate Annie Crawley worked as a deckhand onboard Conception very early in her diving career, and shares an intimate connection with not only these boats, but also with the California diving community as a whole. She shares her thoughts on the tragedy here.
I have an umbilical cord connection with the sea. As my friends and family know, my life is dedicated to the ocean. The Conception was the very first liveaboard boat I worked on in America, and where my ocean family was born. More than 20 years ago, I fell in love with California diving after my first kelp dive at San Miguel Island on a charter hosted by Glen Fritzler, owner of Truth Aquatics. I termed the area the ‘Fiji of California,’ because the reefs are full of purples, reds, greens and blues.
After just one trip, I returned to Chicago, packed my bags and moved to California. Divers here have a special connection with, and love for, the Channel Islands. Soon after arrival, I became a deckhand on the Conception, Truth, and Vision. These boats are synonymous with California diving and helped me fulfill my dream of becoming an underwater photographer and filmmaker. I would not be who I am today if it were not for this fleet of boats, the top-notch crews, and the passengers.
Captain Jerry Boylan, who was on board on Monday, was just one of the more than dozen captains I worked under. But they all had one thing in common — a commitment to safety and a love for the ocean. The crew on these boats is absolutely dedicated to their passengers and the Channel Islands, to the whales, the garibaldis, to sharing the passion.
To set the story straight, the passengers were not locked in. There is a stairway from the salon to the passenger bunk room and an escape hatch out the back. It is a USCG-approved vessel and has a clean safety record, as do all the vessels in the Truth Aquatics fleet. The crew sleep in the wheelhouse because of many different reasons. They often drive at night, taking shifts. They anchor and move the boat at all hours when passengers are sleeping. There are alarms set in the wheelhouse where the Captain and crew sleep. There are no locked doors on this vessel. We all must be patient while the investigation is underway and not spread disinformation.
I have millions of thoughts running through my mind right now as we all wait to hear what the investigation will uncover, but I do know this — every single one of us who worked as crew are all united together with every passenger who has ever been on one of these vessels in our grief. My heart breaks for everyone who has a loved one who passed in this tragic event, as all of our hearts break. It is all unfathomable.
But don’t forget that these boats are ultimately connectors. Best friendships have been forged here; many of us even fell in love out in the Channel Islands. And the Conception made it possible.
My skills working as a captain on these vessels made who I am and will always be, but even more than that, I became part of the Truth Aquatics family and the dive community of California, all environmentalists who help protect the Channel Islands and so much more. Our ocean unites us; the ocean’s story is our story. What is happening right now is happening to all of us. May this tragedy only help unite us all as divers and continue to grow as we work through the pain.
My blue heart extends to all.
Please help by sharing your story, and if you’re so moved, Divers Alert Network has set up a donation page for the families of the victims. One hundred percent of the donations will go straight to them.