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Officials release names of 9 killed in California boat fire

A memorial is set up at Santa Barbara Harbor, where the dive boat Conception was based before it burned and sank off the coast of the Channel Islands on Monday.
A memorial is set up at Santa Barbara Harbor, where the dive boat Conception was based before it burned and sank off Santa Cruz Island on Monday.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Santa Barbara County officials Friday released the names of nine people who died in a massive fire aboard the dive boat Conception that started as the 75-foot vessel was anchored off Santa Cruz Island on Labor Day.

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, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill 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.

Brown, who is also the coroner, said a pathologist determined traditional autopsies would not be conducted on the victims.

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“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 investigators determine the cause of the fire, he added.

“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 future such tragedies will be prevented.”

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Coroner’s officials employed a rapid DNA analysis tool that compares genetic profiles of the victims to 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.

Thirty-nine people were on board for a three-day scuba diving trip when the fire broke out. Five crew members jumped overboard and survived. The passengers and a sixth crew member were asleep below deck and were trapped by the flames, officials said.

Officials have recovered the bodies of 33 people who were trapped aboard the ship. One person is still missing. Divers on Friday are expected to return to the waters off the Channel Islands where the Conception sank to continue looking for the last victim.

At the same time, crews will begin the task of pulling the sunken vessel out of the water. They plan to place it on a barge and bring the boat to shore so investigators can comb through it for evidence, officials said.

“As the vessel is moved during the operation, our divers will search the area that [has] heretofore been inaccessible to them as well as search, again, the vessel itself for the last victim,” Brown said.

Boat Fire California
The derrick barge the Salta Verde arrives at the scene of the wreck of the dive boat Conception off Santa Cruz Island late Wednesday.
(Associated Press)

Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said Friday is the first day that crews began salvage and recovery operations.

“This is an important step to this process,” she said. “It’s an incremental effort to make sure we try our deliberative best to make sure we keep the vessel intact.”

She warned the weather could get rough at the accident scene over the weekend. If it worsens, the operation will be delayed until Monday, she said.

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

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

Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the fire and what provided the fuel to turn it into a raging inferno. One surviving crew member said immediately after the fire that he thought the blaze started in the galley, where cellphones and cameras had been plugged in to charge overnight. Other theories have been offered and authorities said they have not ruled anything out.

“As we commit to finding the cause and the origination point of this fire, I promise that we will leave no stone unturned,” Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said Friday.

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.”

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.

A commercial diving boat caught fire near the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island, Calif., early Monday. Many aboard the boat were believed to be sleeping below deck when the fire broke out in the pre-dawn hours.
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Rochester said Friday that the Conception was required to have a roaming night watchman.

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.

Authorities have not suggested the fire and fatalities were the result of any criminal wrongdoing, but federal prosecutors have already traveled to Santa Barbara, where Truth Aquatics — the company that owns Conception and its fleet of sister ships — is based to assist authorities and keep tabs on the unfolding inquiry.

Brown said several investigations into the fire are underway from multiple federal, state and local agencies.

“We are looking to determine what happened,” he said. “A criminal element to that is always a possibility and is always something we would want to make sure that we have evidence for and we investigate, but at this point no one has been charged criminally. It has not turned into a criminal investigation at this point.”

Don Barthelmess, a marine diving instructor at Santa Barbara City College for many years, took this drone photo of the Conception on May 3.
Don Barthelmess, a marine diving instructor at Santa Barbara City College for many years, took this drone photo of the Conception on May 3.
(Don Barthelmess)

The release of the names of the victims comes a day after attorneys for the owners of Truth Aquatics Inc., Glen Fritzler and his wife, Dana, filed a petition arguing they should not have to pay any money to the families of victims. The filing, which cites an 1851 statute, asks a judge to limit their financial liability or lower it to an amount equal to the post-fire value of the boat, or $0.

Robert J. Mongeluzzi, a Philadelphia-based maritime attorney who often represents families of people who died in duck boat incidents, said the petition by Conception’s owners was a predictable, if callous, tactic for a vessel operator facing crippling legal payouts.

“It is pretty heartless when not all the bodies have been recovered to file something saying their lives are worthless,” Mongeluzzi said.

None of the victims’ relatives have sued the Fritzlers or Truth Aquatics, but in court filings, the owners say they’ve received notice for legal claims. Law firms are also reaching out to victims’ families.

Russell Brown, an attorney representing Truth Aquatics and the Fritzlers, declined comment. However, Glen Fritzler discussed the filing briefly in an interview with KEYT-TV on Thursday.

“Unfortunately, that’s just kind of a normal cause of action in maritime law,” he said. “This is the action that’s advised to us and we need to take.”

Fritzler told the station that he joined the NTSB task force committee immediately after the fire to assist with the investigation.

“Like everybody else, I want answers and I feel like I have something to offer to the team because of my knowledge of our operations and of the boat,” he said. “We’ve been in this business 45 years now and have never had an incident anything like this, so I want to get to the bottom of what it was just like everybody else does. I want to aid in any way I can.”

Times staff writers Richard Winton and Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.


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