The early-morning fire that rapidly consumed the Conception diving boat, killing 34 of the boat's 39 passengers, off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, Monday is a prime example of the danger of boat fires. Boats, with their often-cramped, confined spaces, can easily become death traps in the event of a fire.
While the cause of Monday's blaze remains unknown, the passengers' inability to use either of the vessel's two exits to escape the smoke and flames has been well-documented in media reports. "[The deceased passengers] may not have had any means of escape because the staircases leading up from the sleeping quarters below decks ended in the same enclosed space, not an open deck, investigators believe," the Guardian reported. The only passengers to survive the incident, the boat's captain and crewmembers, were located on the top deck when the fire was discovered.
Coincidentally, the cover story for the September/October issue of NFPA Journal discusses the threat of fires on marine vessels and the challenges firefighters face in battling these blazes. While the story, "Close Quarters," focuses on vessels much larger than the 75-foot Conception—vessels like cargo and military ships—and the challenges firefighters face in fighting ship fires versus the challenges passengers may face in escaping them, many of the same concepts apply in both scenarios. The way most ships are laid out, for example, could make it as challenging for passengers to escape it as it could for first responders to gain access to it.
"The way ships are constructed present huge challenges, the way it traps heat and affects fire growth," Forest Herndon, a 36-year veteran of the marine firefighting industry, says in the article. "Firefighters could be ascending steep, slippery ladders or trying to walk on decks that heat up to the point where their feet are burning. Shipboard fires burn a lot hotter than fires in land-based structures, and you don’t have the ability to ventilate these fires, so your methods of addressing them have to change."
Similar quotes have been published describing the layout of the Conception and boats like it in the wake of Monday's incident. After Jennifer Homendy, a National Transportation and Safety Board member who is leading the investigation into the fatal fire, toured the Vision, a vessel similar to the Conception, she told reporters she was "taken aback" by how difficult it would be to escape from the ship's hull. "You have to climb up a ladder and across the top bunk and then push a wooden door up," she told the LA Times. "It was a tight space."
Openings leading into and out of boats can be so tight, in fact, that firefighters need to remove their turnout gear before using them. Read the full NFPA Journal article here.