All six crew members were asleep when the dive boat Conception burst into flames off the coast of Southern California last week in a Labor Day tragedy that claimed 34 lives, federal investigators said Thursday.
The finding was confirmed in a preliminary report released by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Five of the crew members were sleeping in their assigned berths behind the wheelhouse on the upper deck of the 75-foot wooden vessel.
The sole crew member who was sleeping below deck died along with the 33 guests who got trapped by flames in the jam-packed lower bunk area.
The cause of the blaze has yet to be determined, but the new NTSB report said that when the crew members and captain jumped from the burning boat, swam to the back and opened the hatch to the engine room, they “saw no fire.”
Federal authorities confirmed earlier this week that a criminal investigation is underway and multiple search warrants were served on properties controlled by the boat’s Santa Barbara-based owner, Truth Aquatics.
Boats like the Conception are required to have a crew member keep watch at night. The mandatory monitor is expected to stay alert and give early warning to passengers of threats such as fire.
One possible charge that could arise from the criminal probe is seaman’s manslaughter. It’s based on a statute more than a hundred years old that says a captain, crew member or vessel owner can be held liable for any misconduct or negligence that results in loss of life.
The victims of the horrific Conception fire included a 17-year-old high school student celebrating her birthday with her family and a marine biologist who was leading the tour of the waters around the Channel Islands.
Officials have said the Conception passed its two most recent inspections with no safety violations.
Truth Aquatics, meanwhile, filed a petition in U.S. District Court last week claiming a pre-Civil War provision of maritime law limits its liability.
As the probe of the 3 a.m. fire on Sept. 2 had unfolded, the Coast Guard has updated its safety recommendations to include limitations on the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and the use of power strips and extension cords.
The NTSB previously said one of the crew members on the upper deck awoke to a noise and saw flames erupting from the galley area.
“He tried to get down a ladder. Flames had engulfed the ladder, and so the crew that was on the bridge had to jump down to the main deck and one had broken their leg in that effort,” NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said at a press conference last week.
“The crew that did jump down reported that they went to the double doors of the galley to try to get in, to get to the passengers, but it was engulfed in flames at that time,” she said.
“They then tried to go to the front part of the vessel to get into the window portion, in the front of the vessel, and they could not get into the windows,” Homendy told reporters.
“At that point due to heat, flames and smoke, the crew had to jump from the boat,” she said.
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