Various federal agencies are considering criminal charges in the tragic fire on board the 75-foot dive boat that burned on Labor Day, killing 34 people who were sleeping on a lower deck. The boat, Conception, was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, one of the Channel Islands about 20 miles off the coast of Southern California.
Five people, the captain and four crew members, were able to escape off the boat. They had been sleeping on an upper deck. They told investigators that flames kept them from helping the 34 people (33 passengers and one crew member) who were sleeping below.
One of the surviving crew members told investigators that they did not hear smoke alarms. He woke up to discover flames erupting from a lower deck. The fire apparently started in the ship’s galley, which is between the pilothouse, where the five were sleeping, and the lower deck, where the 34 victims were sleeping.
The surviving crewmen tried to get down stairs from the galley to the sleeping area but flames forced them back. One crewman broke his leg jumping to the deck. The captain sent a Mayday call at 3:28 a.m.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard started their investigation within the day. The boat sank in 60 feet of water just 20 yards off shore in Platts Harbor, on the north side of Santa Cruz Island. So far 33 bodies have been recovered. Officials said they died of smoke inhalation.
The Conception was owned by Truth Aquatics, a California company, and it was based in Santa Barbara Harbor. After the fire, investigators looked at two other dive boats owned by Truth Aquatics.
Jennifer Homendy, of the NTSB, said that one, the Vision, was similar to the Conception. The Conception had two exits from the sleeping area – stairs forward, going up to the galley, and an emergency hatch, located over some bunks aft, also leading to the galley. The escape hatch on the Vision was small and difficult to see, she said.
Homendy also said “We’re looking onto the adequacy of smoke detectors and where there enough fire extinguishers” on the Conception.
Meanwhile, agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and sheriffs’ deputies served warrants at the office of Truth Aquatics. They were investigating possible safety lapses, including the lack of a night watchman on the Conception and proper training for the crew in emergencies.
For its part, Truth Aquatics filed a petition in a Los Angeles federal court seeking to avoid liability in the tragedy, citing a 19th century law used in shipping disasters. It was used in the sinking of the Titanic. One possible charge against the company is called “seaman’s manslaughter,” which involves misconduct or negligence by ship captains or other boat employees. Read more: