NTSB: Entire Crew Was Asleep When Fatal Calif. Boat Fire Started - NBC4 Washington
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NTSB: Entire Crew Was Asleep When Fatal Calif. Boat Fire Started

The Labor Day fire aboard a scuba diving boat off the California coast left 34 people trapped below deck dead

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    New Report Says Crew Was Asleep When Fire Started

    A salvage crew raised the dive boat that sank after a fire killed 34 people off the Channel Islands last week. Patrick Healy reports for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. (Published Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019)

    A preliminary report released Thursday on the Conception diving boat fire confirmed that all six crewmembers were asleep when flames started to engulf the vessel in the early morning hours off the Southern California coast, leaving 34 people dead.

    The National Transportation Safety Board report provides a timeline of events in the Labor Day disaster during a scuba diving trip and actions taken by the boat's crew, but it noted that investigators are still attempting to determine the source of the fire.

    Click here to read the full report.

    The two-page report confirmed that all six crewmembers were asleep at about 3 a.m. when the 75-foot boat, anchored off Santa Cruz Island, caught fire. One crewmember sleeping in a wheelhouse berth was awakened by a noise, according to the report. The crewmember got up to see a fire rising from the compartment below and alerted others.

    Wreckage of Diving Boat That Killed 34 Lifted From Ocean

    [NATL] Wreckage of Diving Boat That Killed 34 Lifted From Ocean

    Conception, the boat that caught fire on Labor Day, killing 34 people on board, was lifted out of the waters off the coast of California on Thursday.

    (Published Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019)

    Crewmembers attempted to enter the compartment and reach passengers, but were not able to use an access ladder that was on fire. They then tried to access the area through a forward window, but were overwhelmed by smoke and jumped overboard, according to the report.

    Two crewmembers and a captain swam to the stern and reboarded the boat, the report states. They saw no evidence of a fire in the engine room before they launched a skiff to pick up other crewmembers in the water. They were rescued by a good Samaritan vessel. 

    The only crewmember to die in the fire was sleeping below deck. 

    The NTSB report released Thursday states that initial interviews with crewmembers indicated that no mechanical or electrical issues were reported with the boat.

    As for a cause of the fire, NTSB member Jennifer Homendy has said investigators are looking at several factors, including how batteries and electronics were stored and charged, what crew members were doing at the time of the fire and their level of training. Investigators also have said they are looking into whether a crew member was assigned to keep watch over the boat and alert others to any dangers. 

    "Based on our internal investigation at this point, one crew member was awake and inspected the galley and saloon area as late as 2:30 a.m. to make sure everything was safe and sound. And, it was," said Douglas Schwartz, attorney for the owner of Truth Aquatics, which owned Conception.

    The report comes as recommendations were issued by the Coast Guard that include limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and the use of power strips and extension cords.

    An ongoing criminal probe is being conducted by the FBI, Coast Guard and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles.

    Salvage teams are attempting to recover the boat wreckage -- a key piece of evidence -- north of Santa Cruz Island. The boat, which was 60 feet below the surface, was raised early Thursday afternoon. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said it's a slow and deliberate process because the vessel must be kept intact for investigators.

    Salvage operations have been delayed several times due to weather conditions.

    The boat's design will also come under scrutiny, particularly whether a bunkroom escape hatch was adequate.

    James Hall, a former NTSB chairman, told The Associated Press a preliminary report is generally a summary of the early findings that relies on interviews, inspection documents and other records and a review of current maritime rules and regulations.

    A preliminary report would likely not address the fire's cause, he said. The agency may issue urgent safety recommendations -- it does not have the authority to make binding regulations -- between the preliminary and final reports, which could take more than a year to complete.

    The recommendations from the Coast Guard -- which has convened a formal Marine Board of Investigation -- also suggest owners and operators of vessels review emergency duties with the crew, identify emergency escapes, check all firefighting and lifesaving equipment onboard, and look at the condition of passenger accommodation spaces for "unsafe practices or other hazardous arrangements."

    Coast Guard records show the Conception passed its two most recent inspections with no safety violations. Previous customers said the company that owns the vessel, Truth Aquatics, and the captains of its three boats, were very safety conscious.

    "While we don't officially know the cause of the fire, we do believe from current evidence and testimonials that it was not caused by the operator, the boat or the crew, who acted heroically and did all in their power to try and save the lives of the passengers and their fellow crew member," Schwartz said in Thursday's statement.

    Divers have recovered the remains of all 34 victims -- 21 women and 13 men ranging from 16 to 62 years old. The remains of the last victim were recovered Wednesday.

    Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said last week that preliminary examinations suggest the victims died from smoke inhalation, not burns. No autopsies have been conducted and official causes of death have not been determined.