California boat fire investigators hope burned remains of Conception hold vital clues

The 75-foot Conception, shown in May, sank on Labor Day after a fire that killed 34 people.
(Courtesy of Don Barthelmess)

The investigation into the boat fire that killed 34 people is expected to shift later this week to the burned out remains of the Conception, which officials hope can yield new clues.

Authorities have been planning to raise the boat from the Santa Barbara Channel for days, but those efforts have been repeatedly put off due to bad weather. Officials now expect the salvage process to begin Thursday or Friday.

Investigators have still not determined the cause of the worst maritime disaster in modern California history and believe being able to examine the boat could help locate an ignition source and answer why none of the victims were able to escape.


The fire broke out during a Labor Day 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.

Federal investigators from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the U.S. Coast Guard have spent the past two days searching the Santa Barbara Harbor office of the Conception operator, Truth Aquatics. The FBI on Tuesday also asked to public for any information — including videos and photos — of the Conception.

Investigators also continued to examine and remove items from the Truth Aquatics Vision, a vessel similar to the Conception. FBI evidence experts carefully packaged up items in cardboard boxes while an ATF team scoured the boat’s systems.

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.

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

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 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.

Throughout the operation, divers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department searched the wreckage for remains.

On the day of the fire, Air Rescue 5 dropped four divers into the water to assess the sunken vessel, said Sgt. David Carver. The dive unit has the experience and equipment to enter confined spaces underwater, Carver said.

The agency partnered with the Port of Los Angeles Police Department last week to search and recover remains, he said.

The passengers of the Conception dive boat ended their second day in the waters off the California coast with a nighttime swim, exploring a lush, watery world populated with coral and kelp forests.

After deciding last week to not perform autopsies on the 34 victims, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Tuesday that his office is doing more tests on the victims.

“We have had some discussions and are doing some additional testing,” Brown said before briefing county supervisors. “It doesn’t change the opinion of the pathologist. The preliminary cause of death is due to smoke inhalation. It cannot be verified until toxicology results come in.”

Brown declined to provide additional details on the testing or who participated in the discussions.

Last week, 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.

In a presentation to the Board of Supervisors, Brown noted that the stairs and escape hatch in the Conception’s berthing area emptied into the galley area — the location of the fire.

Brown also told supervisors he expects his office to complete the DNA analysis this week on the remaining victims, noting DNA has come from China, Japan, Singapore and India.

Winton and Puente reported from Santa Barbara, Wigglesworth from Los Angeles.