Federal officials have served search warrants in a wide-ranging probe of the California dive boat fire that killed 34 people.
Agents from the Coast Guard, FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) in consultation with the U.S. Attorney’s office searched the offices of Truth Aquatics and its two other vessels. “It’s all part of the ongoing investigation into the incident,” said Santa Barbara Sheriff’s spokesman Lt. Eric Raney.
The victims likely died of smoke inhalation, Sheriff Bill Brown said, as the 75’x25’ wooden hulled Conception was engulfed in flames about 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 2 near Santa Cruz Island.
Three days later the Santa Barbara-based owner asked a federal court to limit its liability, claiming the boat was “fit for the service in which she was engaged.” The 1851 Limitation of Liability Act keeps damages to the value of the vessel and its freight.
The cause of the fire has not been determined. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which termed the incident a major marine casualty, is expected to issue a preliminary report soon; a final report could take two years.
The Coast Guard said that its records show that the Conception was inspected in February, and the ship was in full compliance with regulatory requirements. “The Certificate of Inspection (COI) articulated that there was a roving watch required for that vessel,” said Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester.
The NTSB will look at everything from crew training, safety regulations, firefighting training and equipment to whether there were lifejackets and lifeboats available. They’ll also check the adequacy of the smoke detector system, which was not connected through wiring from the bunk room to the bridge, said NTSB member Jennifer Homendy. “The one crewmember who left his bunk reported that he did not hear a smoke alarm,” she said.
When the boat was built in 1981, smoke detectors were not required to be wired to the wheelhouse, said NTSB lead investigator Adam Tucker.
Truth Aquatics referred calls to spokesman John Davies, who said “since the family and the business are part of the official NTSB task force and therefore agreed not to discuss the investigation until complete they cannot comment.”
The NTSB talked with crewmembers who escaped and the owner. “What’s emerging from the interviews is a harrowing story of the moments before the fire erupted on the vessel,” Homendy said. One crewmember reported he awoke to noise and saw flames coming from the galley. He tried to get down a ladder, but it was already burning.
The crew on the bridge jumped down to the main deck – one broke his leg – and tried to get through the galley’s double doors to the passengers, but it was already in flames. Then they tried unsuccessfully to get through some windows. “At that point due to the heat, flames and smoke, the crew had to jump from the boat,” she said.
“We are not ruling out any possible ignition sources,” Homendy said, noting a lot of cameras, cell phones and other equipment were being charged onboard.