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NTSB: Conception boat fire victims were awake, might have been saved with warning

By Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES — More than a year after the worst maritime disaster in modern California history, federal regulators this week offered grim new findings about the last moments of those who died aboard the Conception dive boat when it caught fire off the Santa Barbara coast.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said Tuesday that the 33 passengers and one crew member who perished below deck likely could have escaped if there had been earlier detection of the blaze on Labor Day 2019.

The board found that the fire was burning for at least 30 minutes before a crew member sleeping in the wheelhouse atop the three-deck boat was awakened by the pop, crackle and glow of the flames from the middle deck.

The NTSB determined that most of those below deck were awake — some with their shoes on — as the fire engulfed the vessel about 3 a.m., but they could not escape the bunk room and died of smoke inhalation.

THE PROBABLE CAUSE

The NTSB report offers the clearest evidence yet of what happened. Here are the key findings:

 

— Although the NTSB determined that the fire began in the back of a middle-deck salon, where lithium-ion batteries of divers' personal devices were being charged, the agency could not say whether it was the batteries, the ship's electrical system or another unattended fire source that ignited the blaze.

— Truth Aquatics, the Conception's owner, failed to have effective oversight of the vessel, and those shortcomings included having no roving watch commander on duty, a Coast Guard requirement for whenever passengers are below deck, who likely would have detected the fire sooner and could have saved lives.

— The NTSB also found that the Conception did not have smoke detectors installed in the area where the fire started. While placing much of the blame on Truth Aquatics, the agency also faulted government regulators and a lack of Coast Guard requirements for smoke detectors.

— The high loss of life was due, in part, to the fact that all the below-deck escape routes led to the same location — the salon and the galley in the middle deck where the fire ignited.

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