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The dive boat Conception tragedy and learning lessons
Update: The captain of the dive boat Conception was found guilty of one count of “seaman’s slaughter” on Nov. 6, 2023.
I was in Houston a little more than four years ago when I heard about the Conception dive boat tragedy. Thirty-four lives were lost that day. I think about every diver heard that story with a sinking feeling in their stomachs, imagining that it could be them. It has been termed the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history.
Even if they’ve never taken a liveaboard dive trip, nearly every diver has spent time on dive boats often out of sight with land. There are times you aren’t sure exactly which way land is. And that inspires thoughts of worry — even if just for a moment thinking “if this boat sinks, what do I do.”
Of course, the boat crew is there to put safety measures in place and alert the authorities that there is a problem. Dive boats carry life rafts, personal floatation devices and there is, of course, your dive gear. The crew should do a safety briefing before every dive trip as well to discuss all of those things with you.
I’d never been on the Conception, but I was on a liveaboard trip on one of her sister vessels through Truth Aquatics with a nearly identical interior design.
At the time I thought getting out from the berth area was difficult under normal circumstances. There was only one way in and out — at least from a practical nature and that was up steep stairs. Getting out of the sleeping berths themselves was just as difficult as those boats weren’t designed with individual cabins, but bunk beds. Passengers were racked in tightly.
There was a theoretical second exit toward the bow of the boat, but access to it was cramped and blocked in the case of the Conception.
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For the last 15 years, I’ve written the Lessons For Life column in Scuba Diving Magazine where I have analyzed scuba diving accidents and discussed where things went wrong — laying out lessons we can all learn to avoid similar incidents.
I was in the Houston airport when I got an email from a producer from CNN asking if I would like to write an essay for their website discussing the incident. With some reluctance, I agreed. I really didn’t want to speculate about what happened without knowing a lot more. I’m no expert on marine regulations, either.
I wrote the essay between flights as I worked my way home. When I landed in West Virginia, the story was live online.
Just this week, the trial for the Conception’s captain finally began. As with many complex cases, it has taken longer than anyone expected for this to happen. I don’t know if the captain will be found guilty or will face punishment. I do hope the family will get the answers they seek and that they find some peace after this awful tragedy.
I didn’t want to speculate then and I don’t want to speculate now, although it does seem clear that there were several safety violations on board the Conception, not the least of which was the lack of someone on board being awake overnight to smell smoke and use a fire extinguisher or wake the passengers and get them to safety.
I know, just like with my column, people have analyzed the accident and made changes to make it less likely that something like this will ever happen again.
I’m keeping this Substack free for now, but if you’d like to support it anyway, buy me a cup of Kofi.
Now for the first half of Chapter 2 of the serial short story Going Down With The Ship (I realize the title is unfortunate considering the topic above, but I hadn’t planned on it.)
If you missed Chapter 1, start here.
Chapter 2 — Part 1
The jukebox in the corner thumped out a country tune that Jackson Pauley barely heard and cared about even less. He was hungry. He wanted his food and he wanted to go home. Even though he had successfully avoided the local TV reporter who had questions about his actions on board the dive boat, he had still spent the day talking to police, the US Coast Guard and other authorities. He also had to write up an incident report for his dive training agency’s insurance company. The dive center he worked for was covered by liability insurance and they had to make sure everything was in writing in case someone decided to sue. It wasn’t unheard of that a business had been sued right out of existence for doing nothing more than trying to help someone in trouble. Jackson didn’t think they had done anything wrong, and he heard the woman was doing just fine, but he still had to make sure all bases – and his butt – were covered.
In the excitement at the dock, he had also missed getting tipped by the divers and he had had to skip the second trip to fill out his paperwork. While he was paid by the dive center, it wasn’t much. The tips helped quite a bit. Not that Jackson really needed it. He had a pension from New York City for his time as a firefighter, but he tried to stay away from that money and lived on his earnings as a dive instructor. Understandably, he wasn’t getting rich, but neither his lifestyle nor his outlook indicated that was a problem.
Jackson stood at one end of the bar waiting on the waitress to bring his burger and fries out of the kitchen. His eyes scanned the neon beer signs and the mirrors that adorned the walls. It could have been any small-town bar anywhere in the country. At least the view outside was nice, Jackson thought.
And the view outside the bar was nice. It faced out onto the main harbor on Withrow Key. It wrapped around a sleepy marina with dozens of boats owned by locals and travelers alike. Some saw daily duty on the water, others didn’t appear as if they had been moved in years. The sun was setting across the water, and it bathed everything in a beautiful orange glow.
Walking outside with his food in hand, Jackson placed a hat on his head to cover up his distinctive sand-colored hair – just in case someone was still looking for him – and began walking across the gravel parking lot under the half-bright illumination of the pole-mounted lights. He almost made it to his worn-out Jeep Cherokee when he saw something he didn’t like. There were three men harassing a woman. Jackson had hated bullies since he was a kid. He had knocked down more than his fair share over the years. And never, never did he allow a man to mistreat a woman in his presence. Call it his sense of chivalry or whatever. It didn’t matter to Jackson. He just knew he didn’t like it.
He tossed his sandwich into the open window of his jeep and walked toward the three men. He drew near just as one of the men grabbed the woman by the arm and turned her around roughly. He could see the woman was scared. And that was all it took.
“I think you three need to leave the lady alone,” Jackson said, loud enough to be heard, but without raising his voice.
“Just who do you think you are?” one of the three said as he whirled around on Jackson.
“Doesn’t matter who I am,” Jackson responded, still quiet. “I said you need to leave the lady alone.”
“Maybe the lady wants to be with us,” the second man said.
“No, I don’t,” Andrea Perez shouted.
“Sounds like the lady is tired of your company,” Jackson continued.
“What’re you going to do about it?” the biggest of the three asked, moving menacingly toward Jackson. “There’s only one of you and three of us. What’re you going to do about it?”
“If you three leave and leave the lady alone, absolutely nothing. If you don’t, then I’ll do whatever you make me do,” Jackson replied, still calm, but bracing himself for action.
The men were confused by Jackson’s calm demeanor. He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t threatening. He was simply calm and speaking matter-of-factly. What the would-be attackers didn’t know was that Jackson had learned to fight growing up on the streets of the Bronx. Then, in the Navy, he had learned to channel his natural talents into boxing where he had successfully represented his ship in more than 40 bouts. He had continued boxing as an amateur in a league sponsored by the NY City Fire Department. While he hadn’t stepped into the ring since just before September 11, he had kept himself in shape, working on a speed bag and heavy bag at home on his houseboat, running and exercising – not to mention swimming and diving nearly every day.
This situation, fighting three at once, harked back more to his days on the streets than in the ring, but it all came together nicely.
The first man charged at Jackson, trying to catch him off-guard. But Jackson was looking out for just such a move. He quickly side-stepped the larger man, and triple-tapped him as he passed, in the stomach, kidneys and ribs. With a loud oaf, the man hit his knees and tried to inhale, but found he couldn’t.
The second man approached Jackson more warily, but with the same result. Stepping inside of the man’s wild swings, Jackson went straight to the body and doubled the man over, quickly. Jackson had no intention of doing any serious harm, or even drawing blood for that matter. He didn’t want this situation to get out of hand. He simply wanted to discourage the men from harassing the woman.
As the last man saw his second accomplice hit the ground and fall onto his side, curled up in a ball, he let go of Andrea and began circling in toward Jackson. The two men moved cautiously. The attacker had just seen Jackson take out his two friends and neither of them had even landed a blow. He wasn’t sure how to deal with the smaller man, but he knew better than to rush in. The attacker towered over Jackson’s 5’11”, 175-pound frame, but he was still concerned.
Jackson was in a boxing crouch, preparing himself for the attack when suddenly he stopped, stood straight up and laughed.
“What do you think’s so funny?”
“You’re so worried about me, but you forgot about the other person in this fight,” Jackson said.
“What other person?” the man asked as he glanced quickly to his right and left.
Andrea didn’t go away when the man released her. She just stepped out of the way. Now she stood directly behind the last of the remaining attackers. With a swift kick, putting all her energy and every ounce of her 110-pound frame into it, she launched a 50-yard field goal and dropped the man to his knees. He was unconscious before his head hit the ground. Jackson knew he was still alive, however, because even unconscious, he continued to groan in pain.
“Certainly looks like you can take care of yourself,” Jackson said with an admiring grin as he turned to go.
“What’s your name? I want to thank you for helping out,” Andrea called after him.
“It’s Jackson, but you don’t owe me anything, so don’t worry about it. I’d just suggest you stay away from places that get you in trouble,” Jackson continued as he opened the door to his jeep and slid inside.
“Look, I don’t know what you think I was doing, but I was just looking for someone with a boat to take me out somewhere when those three goons started harassing me. I hadn’t even gone in the bar. I was on the dock out front,” Andrea continued.
“Well, I don’t know what was up, but I’d still suggest taking off before those three get vertical again,” Jackson said as he mentally reviewed the people inside the bar and was forced to concede that he hadn’t seen her inside. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”
“No, I have my own car, over there,” Andrea said, gesturing across the parking lot, toward the main entrance of the pier.
“Well then, I’ll see you around. I’ve had a busy day today and it starts early again in the morning. I’ve got another group of tourists to take diving at 8 a.m. so I need to go home and get some rest,” Jackson said.
“You’re a dive guide around here?” Andrea asked, hopeful that she had found someone to help her. She was holding onto the door of the jeep and talking to Jackson through the window.
“I’m a dive instructor, but not much call to teach. Mostly just leading dives for visiting divers,” Jackson replied. “I work with one of the bigger operations. I’ve got my own boat tied up at the dock, but don’t get much chance to go out and dive like I’d like to. Too busy working.”
Jackson wasn’t sure why he was talking so much to this woman. He hadn’t opened up to anyone in a long time, especially a stranger he met in the parking lot a few minutes before.
“Look miss, um?” Jackson hinted, as he really looked at her for the first time and realized she was attractive.
“The name is Andrea.”
“Well look, Andrea, I really do need to go now. As I said earlier, I suggest you get out of here fast. Those guys look like they’re stirring a bit,” Jackson said as he keyed the ignition on his jeep and turned it over. “I’ll see you around.”
“I’m sure you will, Jackson,” Andrea called after him as he pulled out.
Jackson stepped outside of his houseboat at 6 a.m. just as he did every morning. It didn’t matter what he had done the night before. He was always up with the dawn. That worked out well, because he had to be at the dive boat in an hour to prepare for the tour he would be leading that day.
The only thing he was wearing was a pair of boxer shorts. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem since he really didn’t have any neighbors. No one else actually lived on the boats they had in the harbor. He had two – the houseboat and a 28-foot Boston Whaler that he had set up as a personal dive boat. He always kept a set of personal dive gear and tanks on board, just in case he got the opportunity to make a pleasure dive, although that opportunity didn’t come very often.
Jackson lived in the main marina. It was, in fact, the only marina in the town. It served as the center of town, the main attraction and the location of the only bar and decent restaurant on the key. There were a couple diners near the deepwater dock, but they mainly served the men working on the Beauregard and didn’t offer anything very appealing. It was also the same place Jackson had stopped the previous night to get dinner. But he lived at the other end, away from the more commercial side, if there was such a thing anymore, and the main entrance to the pier.
“Good morning, Jackson,” Andrea said out of the morning gloom.
Jackson turned around with a start.
“How long have you been there?” he asked, more out of shock than anything else.
“Long enough to see you stretch and scratch, but that’s about it,” Andrea giggled. “Kind of cute.”
“How’d you find me? Did you follow me?” Jackson asked, finally getting his thoughts together and immediately becoming suspicious.
“No, I didn’t follow you, but this is a pretty small community. I just asked around and found out who you were. I frankly expected more women would be able to tell me where you lived, but most of them said you keep to yourself,” Andrea explained. Her expression changed as she said, “I’m sorry for approaching you like this, but I need your help.”
“Look, lady, I don’t know who you are, but don’t make me regret helping you out last night. I’ve got enough of my own problems. I don’t need yours,” Jackson snapped, more forcefully than he intended.
“Boy, you’re a surly one in the morning,” Andrea teased.
“What is it?” Jackson said, doing his best to moderate his voice.
“First off, here. Take this. It’s just coffee. I thought you might want some,” Andrea said, handing him a large steaming cup.
“Second, let me start over. My name is Andrea Perez. I’m an investigator with Protect the Reefs out of Ft. Lauderdale. I’m investigating some things going on around here and I need some help.”
“Ok, Miss Andrea Perez of Ft. Lauderdale. Whatever you’re investigating, how do you know I’m not part of it?” Jackson asked.
“I told you I asked around last night. Everyone said you were an upstanding guy, but that you kept to yourself. The fact that you’re not local helps quite a bit too,” Andrea explained.
“So what is it you’re investigating? And why do you need me?” Jackson asked.
“We’ve heard rumors about the group preparing the USS Beauregard for sinking as an artificial reef. Nothing I can substantiate yet, but there are some irregularities. Chemicals not being used properly. Short cuts. That sort of thing. I want to check them out, but I keep getting stonewalled by all the locals,” Andrea explained.
“What is it you need from me?” Jackson asked.
“I want to check out the place they’re planning to sink the ship,” Andrea said.
“So you just need me to take you out on a dive to the coordinates? Is that it?” Jackson asked, surprised. He had expected more.
“That’s it. I’ll even be happy to pay for a private charter. I just need someone to take me out. All the locals I’ve talked to either aren’t interested or aren’t willing.”
“All right. Fine. I’ll do it. I have to work this morning, but I have this afternoon off. Meet me back here at 2 p.m. and we’ll go out. You are a diver, aren’t you?” Jackson asked, looking Andrea up and down and wondering, for an instant, what she would look like in a swimsuit. The T-shirt and shorts she was wearing weren’t all that flattering, but gave just enough of a hint to show a tanned and toned body underneath.
“If it makes you feel better, I’m a dive instructor, too. I’ve traveled all over the world diving,” Andrea replied.
“Ok, fine. Meet me back here at two o’clock and we’ll go. And bring lunch,” Jackson said over his shoulder as he walked back inside his houseboat with the coffee Andrea handed him to get ready for his day.
Andrea stared at the doorway Jackson had just passed through for a minute.
“Well, I guess I’m dismissed,” she said with a laugh and she walked back to her car.
Come back next week for part 2 of Chapter 2 in Going Down With The Ship.