The dive boat burned in the recent tragedy off Santa Cruz Island in Southern California has been brought to the surface and moved to a “secure location” on the mainland for further investigation, according to officials.
“We never reveal where evidence is being taken except to say it is in a secure location protected from the elements,” said Eric M. Weiss, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, to the Ventura County Star.
A preliminary report on the boat fire was released by the National Transportation Safety Board on Sept. 12. The two-page report chronicles the events that transpired on Monday, September 2, at about 3:14 a.m.
Perhaps the most alarming fact included in the report is that no crew member was keeping watch the night of the deadly fire. Five of the six crew members were asleep in berths behind the wheelhouse, while the sixth crew member, Allie Kurtz, a 26-year-old deckhand, was asleep in the bunkroom, an area in the lower deck that housed the passengers.
One of the crew members in the wheelhouse berths awoke at the sound of noise and began to investigate, at which point the crew member noticed a fire near the stern end of the sun deck. The crew then radioed a message to the Coast Guard, stating: “Mayday, mayday, mayday! Conception…north side of Santa Cruz.”
The crew members’ attempt to access the salon and passengers below was thwarted by the fact that the aft ladder was on fire. The crew members jumped down to the main deck in an attempt to enter the salon and galley compartment through a forward window. At that point, it was apparent that the main bunkroom in the belly of the boat was an inferno that could not be penetrated. The crew members, overwhelmed by smoke, then jumped overboard.
The current consensus among officials is that the 34 people below deck likely perished as a result of smoke inhalation.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, and according to NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy the final results “will come in about 12 to 18 months” from now.
While the source of the fire is undetermined, the fact that the crew was asleep at the time of the fire could strengthen the chances of criminal prosecution. According to the Coast Guard, there is typically an individual assigned to a night watch position. The appointed crew member’s job is to walk through the vessel and assess the functionality and safety of equipment over the course of the night.
If any negligence were proven over the course of the investigation, crew members and Truth Aquatics, the company who owns the Conception, could be prosecuted under the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute. This nineteenth century law stipulates that any “captain, engineer, pilot, or other person employed on any steamboat or vessel, by whose misconduct, negligence, or inattention to his duties on such vessel the life of any person is destroyed” could spend up to ten years in prison, according to USA Today.
Michael Turndorf, an attorney who previously represented a Maine lobster boat captain who was charged with the deaths of two crew members, suggested that the reported circumstances could indicate a violation of the law under 18 USC section 1115.
“First, I understand the ship’s operating certificate requires that the master of the vessel designate someone to maintain a roving patrol of the vessel, whether or not it was underway,” Turndorf told The Epoch Times. “If correct, this includes while at anchor. Second, 33 CFR section 164.9 provides, among other things, that the master or person in charge of a vessel shall designate someone to maintain proper anchor watch. Sleeping does not satisfy the watch requirement.”
In the aftermath of the boat fire, Truth Aquatics filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, citing a pre-Civil War era maritime law in an attempt to limit its liability to the victims’ families. In addition, Douglas Schwartz, an attorney for the Conception’s owners, drew attention to Truth Aquatics’s safety record, pointing out in a statement that the company has passed “every single annual Coast Guard inspection for the last 45 years, while hosting 450,000 divers on 1.3 million dives.”
In a statement released on social media by Glen Fritzler, the owner and operator of Truth Aquatics, said, “Our lives have been irreversibly changed by this tragedy and the sorrow it has caused. The families and friends of the victims and survivors are now, and forever, in our thoughts and prayers.”
While investigators are still working toward pinpointing the source of the fire, some experts have speculated about potential causes unrelated to the equipment on the boat.
During an appearance on Fox News, Dr. Alan Diehl, a former NTSB, FAA, and USAF Air Safety Investigator, suggested that alternative causes cannot yet be ruled out.
“We don’t know if in fact the fire was associated with the boat equipment,” Diehl said. “For all we know, it could have been a cell phone or an iPad that burst into flame on a wet suit, which are plastic or rubber.”
On Thursday, the charred remains of the 75-foot vessel were finally lifted from the bottom of Platts Harbor, an action that had been delayed due to strong winds. The hull and the lower berths are the only areas of the boat that remain in the aftermath of the fire.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Mark Barney told the Los Angeles Times that “this is the most critical stage” of the investigation. The goal of officials and lead investigators is to keep as much of the ship intact as possible in order to determine where the fire began and how it spread so quickly.
The NTSB report concluded by stating, “Investigators plan to examine current regulations regarding vessels of this type, year of build, and operation; early-warning and smoke-detection and alarm systems; evacuation routes; training; and current company policies and procedures.”
Presently, the NTSB report has not addressed the possibility of criminal charges.
The FBI has asked the public to contact them with any information related to what the Coast Guard referred to as “a major maritime casualty.” Any videos or images that people believe will be helpful to the investigation can be uploaded at fbi.gov/boatfire.