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California boat fire: Raising sunken vessel is crucial as investigation widens

The Conception sank off Santa Cruz Island after the Sept. 2 fire that killed 34 people.
The Conception sank off Santa Cruz Island after the Sept. 2 fire that killed 34 people.
(Ventura County Sheriff’s Department)

Officials will attempt to raise the sunken Conception — where 34 people died in a boat fire on Labor Day — as the investigation into the disaster intensified.

Sources familiar with the probe said the boat could be towed back to shore as soon as Wednesday. Poor weather stopped the effort this weekend.

By getting the Conception to shore, authorities can begin what is expected to be a lengthy examination of the cause of the fire and other aspects of the investigation.

Of the 34 victims, 33 bodies have been recovered. Officials hope towing the boat could help find that final victim.

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The fire broke out during a weekend diving expedition, trapping the victims, who were sleeping below deck. 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 team of federal investigators from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the U.S. Coast Guard have spent the last two days searching the Santa Barbara Harbor office of the Conception operator, Truth Aquatics Inc. On Monday, they spent more than eight hours examining two of the firm’s other boats, the Truth and the Vision.

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.

The probe is being led by the U.S. Coast Guard criminal investigative group under the oversight of the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, according to one source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to comment publicly.

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While the cause of the deadly Sept. 2 blaze off the coast of Santa Cruz Island remains undetermined, investigators have been looking into possible shortcomings in the way the Conception operated.

Law enforcement sources told The Times last week that a preliminary investigation suggested serious safety deficiencies aboard the Conception. They said the vessel lacked a “roaming night watchman” who remains awake to alert passengers of any fire or other danger; some of the surviving crew members told investigators they didn’t have adequate training to handle a major emergency; and passengers may not have received thorough safety briefings.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, who is also the coroner, said Friday that 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.

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.

Federal authorities have also asked for the public’s help with the investigation. The FBI is asking those with information to contact (800) CALLFBI or visit fbi.gov/boatfire. There, people can upload video and images that they believe will help investigators.


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