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Serious safety flaws aboard Conception, early boat fire investigation finds

A preliminary investigation into the Conception boat fire has suggested serious safety deficiencies aboard the vessel, including the lack of a “roaming night watchman” who is required to be awake and alert passengers in the event of a fire or other dangers, according to several law enforcement sources familiar with the inquiry.

The probe also has raised questions about whether the crew was adequately trained and whether passengers received a complete safety briefing, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not have approval to comment publicly about the case.

Investigators have so far interviewed surviving crew members and others connected to the worst maritime disaster in recent California history, which killed 34 people.

A U.S. Coast Guard spokesman declined to comment other than to describe the investigation as wide-ranging.

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Investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are joining the investigation into the fire, which started in the early morning hours Monday while the ship was anchored off Santa Cruz Island.

Authorities have not suggested the fire and fatalities were the result of any criminal wrongdoing, but prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles were at the scene on Thursday preparing to assist investigators and keep tabs on the unfolding inquiry.

A federal law dubbed “seaman’s manslaughter” was used last year in Missouri by federal prosecutors to charge a duck boat captain and two others in connection with the loss of 17 lives when the amphibious craft capsized in a storm. In that case, it was Coast Guard investigators who built the case for criminal negligence. The captain is accused of failing to assess the weather, steer the vessel appropriately and prepare the passengers for abandoning ship.

The intensifying investigation in the Conception case comes as more details emerged on what it was like aboard the boat when the fire broke out. The sources emphasized that the investigation was still in its early stages and could take months to complete.

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Jennifer Homendy, who is overseeing the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation, said the surviving crew members have told authorities the fire was too intense to save any of the passengers trapped below.

“What’s emerging from the interviews is a harrowing story of the last few minutes before the boat was engulfed in flames,” she said. “They felt that they had done what they could do in a very panicked situation.”

All 33 passengers, who had signed up for a three-day scuba diving trip aboard the boat, died in the fire, along with a member of the crew sleeping below deck.

Homendy said at least one crew member was awakened and left his bunk and, at some point, because of the heat, smoke and fire, jumped over the side with other crew members to try to rescue passengers.

California boat fire: Investigator touring a similar vessel to the Conception said getting to the emergency hatch in the dark was difficult.

Boat fire
Boat fire off Santa Cruz Island, seen at dawn Monday
(Boat fire off Santa Cruz Island)

“The galley area was engulfed in flames,” Homendy said, recounting what the crew member told investigators. “They tried to enter through the double doors but couldn’t get in because of the flames. They tried to access the galley from the front through the windows, but the windows wouldn’t open.”

One of the crew members broke his leg in the jump from the boat. Two other crew members swam to get the skiff and picked up their injured colleague to take him to a good Samaritan vessel.

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They contacted authorities and “returned to the vessel to find survivors,” Homendy said.

The crew member who initially heard the noise got up to look over the side. He looked down and flames were coming up.

Authorities said they got word of the boat fire off Santa Cruz Island in Southern California from a mayday call around 3:30 a.m.

He tried to use the ladder, “but the ladder was engulfed in flames,” Homendy said. “They just couldn’t get in.”

The escape hatch and the entrance were blocked by flames.

What did the first crew member see?

“He heard no smoke alarm, he smelled no smoke, but he did see flames when he looked over,” she said. “They didn’t hear anything.”

She described the smoke alarm on the vessel as one that can be bought at Home Depot. She said the Vision — a boat she toured Wednesday that is very similar to the Conception — also had one smoke alarm, but it is not wired to a centralized system with alarms. The latter type of alarm was not required when the boats were built, she said.

Though slightly larger than the Conception, the Vision has a similar layout. Single and double bunks are stacked two and three high in the boat’s sleeping quarters below deck. A wooden staircase leads from the sleeping area up to the galley.

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Authorities say the exit on the Conception — along with an escape hatch that opens up near the dive deck on the boat — was blocked by fire.

Both boats are owned by Truth Aquatics, which operates the fleet for diving and other excursions around the Channel Islands. The Coast Guard has said the Conception had passed all recent inspections.

The NTSB has questions on the wiring and electrical systems, she said. There was a lot of photography equipment and extra batteries on board charging.

“Did that provide the ignition source? But we’re not closing in on that,” she said. “We’re not ruling out anything at this point.”
The agency is still reviewing records. Older boats had different fire standards compared with newer vessels, she said.

The boat was not at full capacity and could accommodate more passengers, Homendy said. The agency is looking at whether “there needs to be new safety standards to make sure this does not happen again.”

“I definitely have concerns about the ability of those passengers being able to evacuate during a fire,” she said.

Homendy said she was “taken aback” by the size of the emergency hatch when she toured the Vision on Wednesday with a team of investigators.

She and the investigators turned the lights off to see what it would have been like for the passengers trapped on the Conception. Getting to the emergency hatch was difficult, she said, adding that they couldn’t find the light switches in the dark.

“You have to climb up a ladder and across the top bunk and then push a wooden door up,” she said. “It was a tight space. We couldn’t turn the light on.

“It surprised me how small it was and how difficult it was to access,” she said about the escape hatch. “I couldn’t see the people in front of me.”

A source familiar with the crew’s actions said that hours before the fire broke out, the passengers had performed a night dive. A crew member was awake on the boat and straightening up items in the galley and mess area but went upstairs to the wheelhouse about 2:35 a.m.

The boat fire rocked the small, tightknit diving community in Southern California. Many have formed friendships bound by a passion for ocean exploring.

Before the crew member went upstairs, he checked that the stove was cold and nothing flammable was out, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly. Sometime between 2:35 a.m. and 3:15 a.m., the crew member heard a noise and thought somebody had tripped. The crew member went down to the middle level and saw the fire. The flames prevented him from getting down into the galley, the source said.

In the aftermath, the crew has speculated that the fire began in the seating area in the galley area, the source said.

No crew members have reported hearing an alarm sound, the source said.


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