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ATF finishes examining wreckage of dive boat, but investigation into cause of blaze continues

The burned hulk of the Conception is brought to the surface of the ocean
The burned hulk of the Conception is brought to the surface of the ocean by a salvage team off Santa Cruz Island on Sept. 12.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Federal investigators have concluded their examination of the charred wreckage of a dive boat that caught fire on Labor Day, killing 34 people on board, but officials said Friday that the investigation into the origins and cause of the blaze is far from over.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives completed a painstaking examination of the burned-out Conception, which was hauled to a Ventura County dock from the ocean floor Sept. 12.

Experts have worked to piece together the remains of the dive boat, and parts of the vessel were sent to high-tech laboratories. Authorities have also scoured the seabed for missing pieces.

Nearly a month after the deadliest boat fire in modern California history, authorities still have not determined the cause of the blaze, according to two law enforcement sources familiar with the investigation. But sources say a forensic examination is likely to reveal the origin.

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ATF “has finished with their inspection of the Conception. They have deactivated from the scene. [The] investigation as to the origin and cause of the fire continues,” the agency said in a statement to The Times.

There are multiple investigations into the fire, including a criminal probe. The National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report found that the entire crew was asleep before the blaze was discovered and the Conception did not have a roaming watchman, as required by the U.S. Coast Guard for vessel certification.

The NTSB investigation is continuing, and it’s possible investigators could return to inspect the salvaged vessel, a board spokesman said.

Those who died in the inferno were sleeping below deck and could not escape the flames. Crew members above deck were able to jump overboard to safety.

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The NTSB’s initial report said a crew member sleeping in the wheelhouse was awakened by a noise. When he got up to investigate, he saw a fire rising from the salon and alerted four other crew members. They jumped onto the main deck — one man broke his leg in the process — and tried to get into the salon and galley, but the flames kept them back. Overwhelmed by smoke, the crew jumped overboard.

Preliminary investigations have suggested the fire did not start in the engine room, and there are mounting signs that the origin was in the galley. On the morning of the fire, one crew member told a rescuer he thought the fire started with electronic devices charging in the galley.


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