LOS ANGELES (CBSLA/AP) – National Transportation Safety Board investigators were unable to determine what sparked the September 2019 dive boat fire off the coast of Santa Cruz Island which killed 34 people, they announced at a special meeting Tuesday morning.
Investigators told the NTSB’s five-member board that because the boat burned and sank, they couldn’t determine what caused the fire. But they found that it began toward the back of the main deck salon area, where divers had plugged in phones, flashlights and other items with lithium ion batteries that can spread flames quickly.
Investigators also said the lack of a required roving night watchman delayed the detection of the fire.
Court documents say federal criminal charges against the boat’s captain are imminent, though that probe is separate from the NTSB’s proceedings.
In the early morning hours of Sept. 2, 2019, a blaze broke out aboard the 75-foot charter boat “Conception” as it was anchored about 20 yards of Santa Cruz Island and 22 miles southwest of Santa Barbara.
A total of 39 people were aboard, included six crew members and 33 passengers. Five crew members survived. The sixth crew member and all 33 passengers perished.
Investigators told the NTSB board that because some of the passengers’ bodies were recovered wearing shoes, they believe they were awake and trying to escape before being overcome with smoke.
All six crew members aboard the boat were asleep when the blaze broke out. Five of them were sleeping in the wheelhouse on the uppermost sun deck, and the sixth was asleep below in the lower hull’s bunkroom with the passengers. The NTSB said the five crew members in the wheelhouse jumped overboard and survived. The sixth crew member and the passengers asleep below in their bunks were trapped and died.
In response to the deadly fire, the U.S. Coast Guard issued new emergency safety requirements for boaters. They include recommending that boaters limit the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and the use of power strips and extension cords.
The Coast Guard, FBI, ATF and U.S. Attorney’s Office are conducting a criminal investigation into the blaze. The Coast Guard also convened a formal Marine Board of Investigation to determine the cause of the fire.
The boat was owned by Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics.
Conception was built in Long Beach and first launched in 1981. Conception had a maximum capacity of 46 people. The charter was booked by a group called Worldwide Diving Adventures. Truth Aquatics had been running charters since 1974. It suspended operations about a month after the fire.
A plaque with the names of the victims was unveiled at Santa Barbara Harbor on the one year anniversary of the fire.
The families of 32 victims also have filed claims against the boat owners, Glen and Dana Fritzler, as well as Truth Aquatics. In turn, the Fritzlers and the company have filed a legal claim to shield them from damages under a maritime law that limits liability for vessel owners. Court filings show they have offered to settle lawsuits with dozens of victims’ relatives.
(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)