Editorial: An update to the Conception tragedy

Image by Don Barthelmess

I am sure that the Wetpixel community will be aware of the tragic events that unfolded off Santa Cruz Island early in the morning of 03 September. The final death toll of the Conception tragedy stands at 34, with 5 survivors. All the bodies of the deceased bar one have been recovered, and the process of identifying them via DNA analysis has commenced. For a relatively small, close-knit community like that of Californian divers, the effects of this loss are devastating and far-reaching. Almost everyone is grieving the loss of people that they knew and shared time with on dive boats, at social events, shore sites and underwater. This is combined with the absolute desolation that surviving family members and loved ones must be experiencing. Their loss and grief should be absolutely forefront in our minds during any discussion of the tragedy.

Image by Ventura County Fire Department

Image by Harry Rabin

Allison Vitsky Sallmon, a prolific and active member of the California diving and Wetpixel communities, has written eloquently about the tragedy in Scuba Diving magazine. Her article entitled “About California Divers in Particular: Mourning the Conception Dive Boat Tragedy” encapsulates the community’s collective response to losing so many members in a single awful event:

We reach out for each other, comforting people we know only by name, hugging random acquaintances, and making sure to tell our closest dive buddies how very much we love them.

We take time, every single day, to do anything we can to help each other ease a pain that seems so private, so draining, so unimaginable.

Image by Harry Rabin

The diving community organized a poignant vigil on 6 September at Santa Barbara’s Chase Play Park. Several hundred people gathered around an arrangement of 34 scuba tanks, signifying the lost divers.

Image by Harry Rabin

Image by Harry Rabin

Don Barthelmess described the joy that scuba diving can bring and how the sea both unites us and can help heal the terrible wounds inflicted by tragedy.

Image by Harry Rabin

Image by Harry Rabin

Mourners placed carnations in a basket while Jackson Gillies sang “Amazing Grace.”

There is an admirable desire among divers to reach out and help our brothers and sisters in need. DAN has set up a fund to help the families of the victims. DAN itself has donated $10,000 to get the fund started and is appealing to the global diving community for additional donations. It is possible to give online. 100% of the funds collected will be distributed equally among the families of the victims.

Image by US Coast Guard

Inevitably a great deal of media attention has arisen about the tragedy. This has resulted in many speculative theories circulating, particularly on social media. The only things that are definite at this point are: Firstly, that the cause of the fire has not been determined and: Secondly, that there is no basis for any suggestion that the boat’s design or any onboard procedures played a part in the death toll. There is an ongoing official investigation, and when this is concluded and presents its findings, we will be in a position to make such judgments. The NTSB has said that it will make its preliminary findings public this week but has warned that it could take between 12 and 24 months to come up with a definitive cause for the calamity. Until we are in command of all the facts, speculation is harmful and can result in knee jerk reactions.

Image by Santa Barbara County

This open-minded approach has not been helped by assorted “experts,” making public pronouncements about the tragedy in the media. Officials, who should know better, have made statements that seem to suggest particular procedures or the physical characteristics of the vessel were contributing factors. Also, many media outlets are quoting “source(s) familiar with.” These individuals seem ill-equipped to make such pronouncements, with little or no knowledge about dive boats, their passengers, or their procedures. Sadly, it would seem that even NTSB individuals that are a part of the investigation seem to be guilty of this rumor-mongering.

I would encourage those investigating to carry out their duties in an impartial fashion and to refrain from any comments until they have a definitive verdict about the tragedy. While the lure of seeing one’s name in print or the glare of the TV lights may seem attractive, ill-formed or incomplete pronouncements have profound impacts on the investigation and for future dive boat safety. For those of us seeking to know what happened to prevent any similar tragedies from ever occurring again, this is unacceptable.

Image by Harry Rabin

Over the next few months, the diving community will be exposed to all manner of hearsay, rumor, and innuendo about the Conception tragedy. Some of this may well emanate from sources that seem reliable. I would urge that we all ignore this noise and return to what our focus should be; helping a grieving community to come to terms with the tragedy and to provide support for friends and families that have endured such a terrible loss.

In the fullness of time, the facts will emerge, and when they do, we will use them to try to ensure that there will never be a similar tragedy in the future. Until then, let us avoid reaching judgments with incomplete information and rather speak with our hearts by showing compassion and caring to our brothers and sisters in their grief.