Officials on Thursday raised the remains of the Conception, a 75-foot vessel that caught fire on Labor Day and killed 34 people. The move is a key step in the investigation into what sparked the deadly blaze.
Authorities have been trying to recover the vessel for a week but have been delayed by poor weather. Investigators who have still not determined the cause of the worst maritime disaster in recent California history believe an examination of the boat could help locate a fire ignition source and determine why most of the people on the weekend diving excursion were unable to escape.
U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney said salvage crews were working early Thursday to prepare the Conception to hoist it onto a barge.
By late morning, a massive crane with yellow straps slowly lifted the vessel up the side of the barge. The entire superstructure that made up the wheelhouse and middle deck had been destroyed in the blaze. Only the sides of the middle deck area remained intact.
As the Conception’s shell hung on the side of the barge, water slowly drained from the burned-out hull.
“This is the most critical stage,” Barney said, noting the importance of keeping what’s left of the boat intact for investigative purposes.
The boat is expected to be taken to a naval facility, where a team of investigators from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will examine its power, fuel and electrical systems, federal officials said.
The effort comes a day after divers recovered the last body from the scene of the fire, which broke out during a Labor Day weekend diving expedition, trapping the victims, who were sleeping below deck as the vessel was anchored off Santa Cruz Island. Coroner’s officials believe all the victims died of smoke inhalation.
Five crew members who woke up to the raging inferno were able to escape.
While investigators have not determined what caused the fire, there have been suggestions that the blaze may have erupted at a charging station used by passengers for phones and other electronics in the galley or because of some lithium battery malfunction.
The designer of the Conception told The Times that he believed the fire began in the belly of the boat and involved lithium battery chargers.
Federal investigators from the FBI, the ATF, and the Coast Guard have spent the last two days searching the Santa Barbara Harbor office of Conception’s operator, Truth Aquatics Inc. The FBI on Tuesday also asked the public for any information — including videos and photos — on the Conception.
Investigators also continued to examine and remove items from Truth Aquatics’ boat Vision, a 80-foot vessel similar in size and layout to the Conception. FBI evidence experts carefully packaged up items in cardboard boxes while an ATF team scoured the boat’s systems.
Investigators have been looking into possible shortcomings in the way the Conception was operated. Law enforcement sources told The Times last week that a preliminary investigation suggested safety deficiencies aboard the vessel.
A preliminary report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board indicated the vessel lacked a night watchman assigned to remain awake to alert passengers of fire or other danger. Authorities are also looking into whether crew members had appropriate training to handle a major emergency and whether passengers received adequate safety instructions.
On Wednesday, the Coast Guard issued a safety bulletin recommending that commercial boat operators nationwide review safety measures, make sure safety equipment is operational and reduce potential hazards from lithium batteries, power strips and extension cords.
The Coast Guard has also established a formal Marine Board of Investigation, its highest-level inquiry in fatal marine incidents. The four-member board will investigate all aspects of the fire.
The owners of Truth Aquatics Inc. have already taken legal steps to try to limit their financial liability in the fire.
Last week, attorneys for owners Glen Fritzler and his wife, Dana, filed a petition arguing they should not have to pay any money to the families of the victims. The filing, which cites an 1851 California statute, asked a judge to limit their financial liability or lower it to an amount equal to the post-fire value of the boat, or $0.
U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson on Wednesday determined that the Conception was worthless based on sworn statements from company officials.
Robert J. Mongeluzzi, a Philadelphia maritime attorney representing families of people who died in a duck boat incident in Missouri, said the petition by the Conception’s owners was a predictable, if callous, tactic for a vessel operator facing crippling legal payouts.
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.
Russell Brown, an attorney representing Truth Aquatics and the Fritzlers, has declined to comment on the filing. However, Glen Fritzler discussed the legal move briefly in an interview with KEYT-TV .
“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.”