California boat fire: Criminal probe launched with focus on possible safety lapses, sources say

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Federal authorities have launched a criminal investigation into the Southern California boat fire last week that killed 34 people, with a focus on whether the operation violated maritime safety regulations, two law enforcement sources told The Times on Monday.

A team of federal investigators from the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives , and U.S. Coast Guard have spent the last two days searching the Santa Barbara Harbor office of the Conception operator, Truth Aquatics Inc., retrieving records and also examining another boat owned by the firm.

The probe is being led by the U.S. Coast Guard criminal investigative group and being overseen by the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, according to one source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to comment publicly.

California Full coverage: California boat fire California Full coverage: California boat fire A commercial diving boat caught fire near the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island, Calif., early Monday. Many aboard the boat were believed to be sleeping below deck when the fire broke out in the pre-dawn hours. Advertisement While the cause of the deadly Sept. 2 blaze off the coast of Santa Cruz Island remains undetermined, investigators have been looking into possible shortcomings in the way the Conception operated.

The fire broke out during a weekend diving expedition, trapping the victims, who were sleeping below deck. Five crew members who were above deck at the time were able to escape and said the fire was too intense to get anyone else out.

Law enforcement sources told The Times last week that a preliminary investigation into the Conception boat fire had suggested serious safety deficiencies aboard the vessel, including the lack of a “roaming night watchman” who is required to be awake and alert passengers in the event of a fire or other dangers. The probe also has raised questions about whether the crew was adequately trained and whether passengers received a complete safety briefing, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not have approval to comment publicly about the case.

One of the sources said that when surviving crew members were interviewed, some suggested they didn’t have adequate training to handle a major emergency on board. Documents the investigators obtained have underscored those concerns, the source said.

Advertisement Investigators are trying to determine whether the Conception was in compliance with the vessel’s certification requirements, which outlined a series of safety regulations it must follow. Prosecutors would ultimately have to decide whether any shortcomings amount to criminal negligence.

A federal law dubbed “seaman’s manslaughter” was used last year in Missouri by federal prosecutors to charge a duck boat captain and two others in connection with the loss of 17 lives when the amphibious craft capsized in a storm . In that case, it was Coast Guard investigators who built the case for criminal negligence. The captain is accused of failing to assess the weather, steer the vessel appropriately and prepare the passengers for abandoning ship.

According to two sources, the Conception is now slated to be raised from the ocean floor off Santa Cruz Island and brought to a dock in Ventura, where the ATF’s most experienced team of fire experts will examine the wreck to determine the cause of the fire.

During the questioning with National Transportation Safety Board investigators, the crew has speculated that the fire began in the seating area of the galley.

The galley area was engulfed in flames,” NTSB commissioner Jennifer Homendy said, recounting what the crew members told investigators. “They tried to enter through the double doors but couldn’t get in because of the flames. They tried to access the galley from the front through the windows, but the windows wouldn’t open.”

A boater who helped the surviving crew members that morning said one of them thought the fire started in the galley, where cellphones and cameras had been plugged in to charge overnight.

The surviving crew members have said the fire was too intense to rescue anyone below deck.