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Autopsies of 34 who died in Conception boat fire offer grim new details

Conception boat fire
The Conception boat fire killed 34 people off the Channel Islands in September 2019.
(Ventura County Fire Department)

Within days of the dive boat Conception bursting into flames off the Channel Islands and killing 34 people, the Santa Barbara County coroner declared that the deaths were the result of smoke inhalation and that all died below deck.

But documents from the Santa Barbara sheriff’s coroner’s operation released eight months after the disaster raise new questions about those final moments below.

Of the 33 passengers and one deckhand below deck, at least six were wearing shoes, boots or some kind of footwear when their bodies were discovered, according to the coroner’s records.

One man was clutching a cellphone in his right hand. A woman was holding a blue flashlight and wearing brown slip-on shoes, according to a coroner’s report.

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The man with his silver cellphone was wearing denim pants with a black belt.

According to the coroner’s records, he was wearing an unusual combination of footwear, one black sandal and one brown-black hiking boot for a left foot.

Some people in the diving world said the autopsy results raise questions about whether all the victims were asleep when the fire occurred.

Ben Wolfe, a veteran diver and retired fire captain who had made numerous weekend dive trips on the vessel, said he has never knows people to wear shoes in their bunks, especially tennis shoes.

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The maritime disaster is under criminal investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard and FBI under the supervision of the U.S. attorney. It is also the subject of a probe by the Maritime Board of Inspection and the National Transportation Safety Board.

A preliminary investigation by the NTSB determined that the five crew members were asleep in their berths on the top deck when the blaze broke out about 3 a.m. despite a requirement that the vessel conduct a roving watch at night.

By the time the crew noticed, the galley and salon were engulfed in flames, and the main bunk room was directly below the fire, in the belly of the boat. The only way for those below to escape was through two exits in the galley.

Investigators have served search warrants to Truth Aquatics, the boat’s operator.

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In all 34 deaths, Dr. Manuel Montez, a forensic pathologist for the coroner’s bureau declared smoke inhalation as the cause, citing the levels of carbon monoxide found in vials of blood recovered from the victims.

Most of those killed had carbon monoxide saturation of 50% to 80%. But a few, like the woman with the flashlight, had less. Her test revealed more than 10% carbon monoxide after her body was recovered. Carbon monoxide binds with hemoglobin far better than oxygen, preventing the delivery of oxygen. Usually 50% is fatal, but small levels can be in some circumstances.

In one death, where divers recovered a spine and a pelvis and little else and no toxicology was possible, Montez still declared the death due to smoke inhalation, records show. In some cases, he found soot in the throat to support a smoke inhalation finding, records show.

Almost all the victims suffered fourth-degree burns. A report noted “significant thermal burns to the bodies with limbs missing due to the intensity of the fire.”

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Some were in the water for a few days, as divers combed the wreckage in shallow water off the Santa Cruz Islands, finding some bodies hundreds of yards away in a cove.


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