VENTURA, Calif. — The owner of the vessel "Conception" talked exclusively Tuesday morning with Spectrum News 1 about a deadly fire on his boat Monday off the Southern California coast.
"I'm numb," said owner and operator Glen Fritzler of Truth Aquatics Inc. in a phone interview. "There were a lot of people that were on that boat that I knew personally, people that I had dealt with for decades."
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There were 39 people on the 75-foot commercial vessel when it caught fire around 3:30 a.m. Monday, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Five crew members were able to evacuate. Twenty people have been confirmed dead as of Tuesday morning.
The group was on a diving trip for Labor Day weekend.
"Of all of the years I've been in this business, I've never seen or heard of anything like this," Fritzler told Spectrum News 1. "It's a complete tragedy. It's horrible."
He said the company will shut down operations for a couple weeks out of respect for the families involved.
"We all have so many questions at this point," he said. "We need answers like the public needs answers."
Truth Aquatics has a fleet custom designed for diving, according to the company website. It began working with Channel Islands National Park in 1998.
Below is more from my interview with Fritzler.
Brunell: "What do you want the public to know?"
Fritzler: "I want people to know that there [are] two entrances into the bunking area: a main entrance and an emergency escape hatch. I want people to know that the area, the salon that people enter into the boat to access the area, there were no doors. It's a wide open doorway and no doors. There were no locked doors anywhere ... We did lose a crewman that was below deck, stationed down below decks with passengers, perished as well as best as we know ... That was the only reason that any of the crews survived is they were on the upper deck and the flames reached up there and they had to make a large leap off the boat to escape the boat ... I want them to know that a couple of the crewmen swam to the stern of the boat, that could not access any of the fire hoses because they were engulfed."
Brunell: "I understand that people also think that the mayday calls were made from outside of the boat. Were they made on the dinghy or were they made in the wheelhouse?"
Fritzler: "They were made in the wheelhouse. He made two calls. The second call where you can hear him say, "I can't breathe." That was the second call. At that point he had to jump off the boat. The other crewmen were already off the boat. The captain was the last to leave the boat crying to Radio Coast Guard."
Brunell: "What do you think about the speculations and the people out there who think the crew bailed on the passengers?"
Fritzler: "There is no way. They did everything in their power to help, but the flames just spread. That's the investigation. Nobody understands why this fire spread like it did ... The investigation has to continue, but you know, we're all so surprised. We also have to remember this boat's been in operation since 1981. It's taken thousands upon thousands of people out over that period of time with no fire incidents whatsoever."
Brunell: "Is it surprising to you that so many people were not able to get out? I mean, can a fire spread that quickly on a boat that there would be no time for anyone to leave that bunk area?"
Fritzler: "Yes to both. I am utterly surprised, and the only thing that I can possibly conceive is that people suffocated quickly. The smoke, well I guess it was billowing."
Brunell: "I understand it’s required that someone is awake at all times, a watchman. Can you talk about that?"
Fritzler: "Yeah, the watchman was on rotation and, um, up in the wheelhouse at that point. I think, uh, that I can’t say for sure. Um, but it was a short visit down into that area prior to that."
Brunell: "Have you spoken to your crew and the captain that was on the boat? How are they doing? How are they feeling?"
Fritzler: "They're feeling horrible. I'm sure it's survivor's guilt. One of our crewmen was lost in this incident as well. They're a wreck. They're an emotional wreck."
Brunell: "Is there any type of accelerant on the boat? I know that the tanks are very flammable, but was there any propane or anything else that would cause this type of fire?"
Fritzler: "No. On the back deck, that was one of the last things to burn, there [were] some oxygen bottles that the divers use. The rest of the scuba tanks are just air, or what we call Nitrox, which is a higher concentration. It's a 32 percent concentration that divers use, but it's a low oxygen count and they were out on the back deck and that was the last to burn. As far as the accelerant inside the boat, there is no gas, no propane, no diesel. It's all electric."
Brunell: "How trained are people, are your crew members, to deal with an explosion or a rapidly moving fire?"
Fritzler: "They're all well-trained. They're all mariners. They're all trained, and you know, unfortunately we didn't have access to any of the firefighting equipment."
Brunell: "Is there anything else that you think the company or these boats could have been equipped with that would've prevented this?"
Fritzler: "No. Honestly not at all. If that was the case, I would've done it because we are a top-notch company, and I've invested my entire life into this company, and I take it very seriously and that will be disclosed. I'm sure through Coast Guard records, the Coast Guard has the utmost respect for our operation and what we do ... I'm sure something's going to be learned from this ... Unfortunately, these kinds of accidents, regardless if it's a boat or an airplane, we learn from them and there will be something learned, and it's a very, very unfortunate event. We're all sickened by it, and the entire crew and staff is. Words can't convey."