Mom Recounts Her March Trip on Calif. Boat Where Dozens Died in Fire: 'It Smelled Like Fuel'

One day after a diving boat carrying 39 people burst into flames, with 34 presumed to be dead, a mom is speaking out about her nerve-wracking experience on the same vessel in March.

The Conception, a 75-foot commercial boat, went up in flames around 3:30 a.m. local time Monday off the coast of Santa Cruz Island in California.

The remains of 20 people — 11 women and nine men — have been recovered and transported to the coroner’s bureau, and between four and six additional bodies were spotted by divers beneath the sunken wreckage of the boat. After it is stabilized, the divers can recover the bodies, Santa Barbara Sheriff-Coroner Bill Brown said in a press conference on Tuesday.

Authorities have not yet identified the victims, but according to Brown, the process is “underway,” and with help from family members, officials will be using DNA to make positive identifications.

“I’m getting the chills just thinking about how this could have been me leaving my baby behind,” Michelle Patton, a 36-year-old project manager for a healthcare company in Sacramento, tells PEOPLE. “It’s horrific.”

When Patton, who has a 14-month-old baby, first walked onto the boat to head to the Channel Islands for a long weekend lobster diving excursion, she “immediately smelled fuel in the bunk and said it over and over again” to other divers, but brushed it off because she didn’t want to overreact.

Michelle Patton had previously been on the Conception | Michelle Patton
Michelle Patton had previously been on the Conception | Michelle Patton

She also recalls the “alarming” moment their trip was cut short after an experienced diver suffered from Bends, a decompression sickness, and had to be taken off the boat in a stretcher.

An employee at Truth Aquatics, which owns The Conception, declined to comment to PEOPLE.

With one stairwell exit that led up to the galley, where the passengers ate, the other exit was an escape route if the stairwell was blocked.

Patton said she did not recall ever being shown how to use the escape door, adding that it was so small, not everyone might be able to fit through. “I only saw the door and realized it goes into the top bunk by putting it together myself. I think it has a lock on it, but I obviously never tested it before.”

RELATED: 20 Bodies Found, 14 Missing After Calif. Boat Fire — What Could Have Caused ‘Mariner’s Worst Fear’?

Tributes at Santa Barbara Harbor | Ringo H W Chiu/AP/Shutterstock
Tributes at Santa Barbara Harbor | Ringo H W Chiu/AP/Shutterstock

The Conception had been on a three-day Labor Day diving cruise at the time of the fire, according to the website for a local excursion company. Audio of a mayday call reveals that the dispatcher questioned, several times, whether the passengers were “locked” inside the boat, with no means of escape from the flames.

“There’s 33 people on board the vessel, they can’t get off?” he asks, to which he receives no audible response in the audio obtained by journalist Matthew Keys. “Are they locked inside this boat?”

Only the dispatcher can be heard speaking, and it remains unclear as to whether he is repeating what he heard back to the caller, or if he is asking the questions himself. Nothing he says is affirmatively answered by the caller, who told the dispatcher, “I can’t breathe,” earlier in the call.

“Can you get back on board and unlock the boat? Unlock the door so they can get off?” the dispatcher asks.

He then inquires as to whether the passengers have access to equipment to help them quell the flames.

“You don’t have any firefighting gear at all, no fire extinguishers or anything?” he asks.

Just before the audio ends, the dispatcher says, “There’s no escape routes for any of the people on board?”

At a press conference on Tuesday, U.S. Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester said that there are no locked doors in accommodation spaces on ships like the Conception, while Brown noted that the escape routes were likely not locked, just blocked.


Recalling her experience in March, Patton tells PEOPLE there wasn’t a walk-through of the vessel, claiming that the crew “did not do any fire explanation when I was on the boat” and “did not point out where the fire extinguishers are.”

She added: “There could be another safety conversation that happens in the evening before bed, but a lot of people don’t arrive until after work really late at night on the first day of the trip.”

She said she did not recall hearing any discussion of fire safety on her trip in March or a previous trip on the same boat in 2017.

Dave Reid, who runs an underwater camera manufacturing business with his wife, Terry Schuller, had a much better experience aboard the Conception.

“When you see the boats they are always immaculate,” he told the Associated Press. “I wouldn’t hesitate at all to go on one again. Of all the boat companies, that would be the ones I wouldn’t think this would happen to.”

Ringo H W Chiu/AP/Shutterstock
Ringo H W Chiu/AP/Shutterstock

He added that “they tell you where the life jackets are, how to put them on… the exits, where the fire extinguishers are, on every single trip. They are the best, the absolute best.”

Rochester said that the boat would have had smoke detectors, a fixed firefighting system in the engine room, portable extinguishers at both entryways, and extinguishers on the bridge and main deck.

“According to the last examination inspection that the Coast Guard did, all apparatus was accounted for,” Rochester said.

RELATED: Search and Rescue Efforts in California Boat Fire Suspended as Officials Focus on Recovery


Looking back on her trip, Patton says she “didn’t do anything about” her concerns, but “should have.”

“I should have listened to my gut and said something,” she adds. “Who knows what could have happened? It eats me alive. These people are like me. They were out to have a great time and they got killed.”