The fire broke out early Monday morning during a Labor Day weekend diving expedition, trapping the victims who were sleeping. Five crew members who were above deck at the time were able to escape and said the fire was too intense to get anyone else out.
A source familiar with the crew’s accounts told The Times that hours before the fire erupted, the passengers had participated in a night dive. A crew member who had been straightening up the galley and mess area went upstairs to the wheelhouse about 2:35 a.m.
Before the crew member went upstairs, he checked to make sure the stove was cold and flammable materials were stowed, according to the source, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Sometime before 3:15 a.m., the crew member heard a noise and thought someone on the boat had tripped. The flames prevented him from getting into the galley, the source said. The passengers and one crew member were in the sleeping area one level below the galley.
During the questioning with National Transportation Safety Board investigators, crew have speculated that the fire began in the seating area of the galley.
“The galley area was engulfed in flames,” NTSB commissioner Jennifer 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.”
A boater who helped the surviving crew members that morning said one of them thought the fire started in the galley, where cellphones and cameras had been plugged in to charge overnight.
Authorities have not said whether the investigation so far has pointed to either a specific location or a cause. But the source said that based on the crew’s account, the fire did not start in the Conception’s engine room.
A preliminary investigation into the blaze has suggested serious safety deficiencies aboard the Conception, 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.
The boat’s owners, Truth Aquatics, declined interview requests. In a statement, the company said, “As a member of the NTSB task force committee, we are prevented from commenting on details of this active investigation. We are committed to finding accurate answers as quickly as possible.”
Investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are joining the investigation into the fire. The members of the National Response Team, which consists of fire investigators, special agents, mapping specialists, fire protection engineers, electrical engineers, forensic chemists and others, cumulatively have more than 250 years of experience investigating fires.
“Our primary role is to determine the origins and cause of the fire,” said Carlos Canino, special agent in charge of the Los Angeles ATF. “We don’t put time limits on how long we’re going to be here.”
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, who is also the coroner, said a pathologist determined traditional autopsies would not be conducted on the victims.
“Our pathologist is convinced the victims were victims of smoke inhalation,” he said. “It will likely be the cause of death.”
Brown said he consulted with local, state and federal authorities before making the decision to not conduct autopsies. External examination and toxicology samples were taken from each victim, he said. The final ruling on the causes of death will not come until a formal cause of the fire is established, he added.
“We’re looking to determine what happened,” he said. “A criminal element to that is always a possibility. At this point, no one has been charged criminally. It has not turned into a criminal investigation at this point.”
Coroner’s officials employed a rapid DNA analysis tool that compares genetic profiles of the victims with family samples collected using a cheek swab. DNA samples have been collected from relatives across the country and from as far away as India and Japan. FBI field offices across the globe have helped collect samples, Brown said, adding that samples are still on the way to Santa Barbara.
Brown also released the names of nine people killed. The victims identified Friday ranged in age from 26 to 62. The 34 people killed in the blaze hail from across the United States and from countries around the globe, Brown said during a news conference.
The victims are: Raymond Scott Chan, 59, of Los Altos, Calif.; Yulia Krashennaya, 40, of Berkeley; Allie Kurtz, 26, of Santa Barbara; Caroline “Carrie” McLaughlin, 35, of Oakland; Marybeth Guiney, 51, of Santa Monica; Justin Carroll Dignam, 58, of Anaheim; Daniel Garcia, 46, of Berkeley; Ted Strom, 62, of Germantown, Tenn.; and Wei Tan, 26, of Goleta, Calif.
Authorities have located 33 of the 34 victims.
“We mourn their loss,” Brown said of the victims, “and want to assure those who they leave behind that we will continue working tenaciously to recover all of the victims, to determine how they died and to investigate the cause of this terrible fire and loss of life, with the hope that such future tragedies will be prevented.”