Burn­ing dive boat takes fa­tal fire clues to a wa­tery grave

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Brian Mel­ley

LOS ANGELES — Of­fi­cials have vowed to find what sparked the in­ferno aboard the dive boat Con­cep­tion that killed 34 peo­ple off South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, but vi­tal ev­i­dence may have gone down with the ship or drifted out to sea.

The main piece of ev­i­dence, the charred re­mains of the boat, rests on the sea floor in 60 feet of wa­ter. Other items that could pro­vide valu­able clues could have been car­ried away by tides or de­stroyed in the blaze that burned so hot DNA is needed to iden­tify the dead.

“All of that will be a very large hur­dle to over­come,” said Ge­orge Zeitler, a for­mer Coast Guard in­spec­tor who runs his own ma­rine in­ves­ti­ga­tion firm. “It will def­i­nitely make for a com­plex in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

In­ves­ti­ga­tors will want to craft a time­line of the ship’s fi­nal voy­age from the mo­ment it pulled away from a Santa Bar­bara dock early Satur­day morn­ing un­til dis­patch­ers re­ceived the fran­tic may­day call of the cap­tain over­whelmed by smoke, ex­perts said.

They will look at the ship’s lay­out and whether the bunk room be­low deck was too cramped and had enough ex­its, re­view main­te­nance records and even study pho­tos and videos from peo­ple who have been on the boat to look for valu­able ev­i­dence.

As the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the La­bor Day tragedy ex­pands on land and sea, fed­eral and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties will look not only at de­ter­min­ing what went wrong but also seek lessons that could lead to changes in com­mer­cial ves­sel reg­u­la­tions.

“Our mis­sion here while we’re on scene is to de­ter­mine how this hap­pened, why it hap­pened and what safety im­prove­ments are needed to pre­vent it from ever hap­pen­ing again,” said Jen­nifer Homendy of the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board.

The fire, in­ves­ti­gated with help from the FBI and Bureau of Al­co­hol, To­bacco, Firearms and Ex­plo­sives, is be­ing treated as an ac­ci­dent and there’s noth­ing to sug­gest any­thing “ne­far­i­ous,” said Santa Bar­bara County Sher­iff Lt. Erik Raney.

The Con­cep­tion, owned by Truth Aquat­ics, had been char­tered for three days by a com­mer­cial dive out­fit based in Santa Cruz to ex­plore the rugged Chan­nel Is­lands, some­times re­ferred to as the Gala­pa­gos of North Amer­ica, about 20 miles south of Santa Bar­bara.

The may­day call came at 3:15 a.m. Mon­day as pas­sen­gers would have been sleep­ing while the boat was an­chored just off Santa Cruz Is­land.

While ini­tial de­tails were lim­ited, Santa Bar­bara County Sher­iff Bill Brown said fire above deck blocked the one stair­way and an emer­gency exit hatch where 33 pas­sen­gers and one crew mem­ber were sleep­ing in their bunks.

“If an emer­gency exit is blocked due to fire and pre­vents one from es­cap­ing, it’s a hor­rific sit­u­a­tion,” said Hen­drik Kei­jer, an in­ves­ti­ga­tor with Rob­son Foren­sic who has cap­tained cruise ships and op­er­ated cargo boats. “Ves­sels are mazes.”

The five sur­vivors were all crew mem­bers, in­clud­ing the cap­tain. They ap­par­ently jumped from the boat’s bow, where the stair­way led to the sleep­ing quar­ters, and swam to the stern, where they es­caped in a dinghy and were taken aboard a nearby boat.

At­tor­ney James Mer­cante, a for­mer mer­chant ma­rine of­fi­cer who has de­fended thou­sands of mar­itime ca­su­alty cases, said it was un­usual that only crew mem­bers sur­vived, but that is likely be­cause they were above deck.

Mer­cante said he would want to find out what the crew did upon be­ing alerted to fight the fire and for how long be­fore they aban­doned ship.

“Some­thing was ig­nited that spread a fire rapidly,” Mer­cante said. “It must have spread aw­fully quickly if no­body but the crew got out.”

Even with lim­ited phys­i­cal ev­i­dence, fire in­ves­ti­ga­tors should be able to pin­point where the fire be­gan, though find­ing the cause will be more dif­fi­cult, Mer­cante said.

CHRIS­TIAN MONTERROSA/AP

Au­thor­i­ties and FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tors cart away ev­i­dence taken from the Con­cep­tion af­ter Tues­day’s search.

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