Crew says sev­eral tries made to save 34 killed in boat fire

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Stefanie Dazio and Julie Wat­son

LOS AN­GE­LES — The crew of a scuba div­ing boat that sank off the coast of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia made sev­eral at­tempts to res­cue the 34 peo­ple who were trapped by fire be­low decks and died, fed­eral au­thor­i­ties said Thurs­day.

All those lost in the La­bor Day tragedy aboard the Con­cep­tion were sleep­ing in a bunkroom be­low the main deck when fire broke out around 3 a.m. The cap­tain and four crew mem­bers above sur­vived, but none have spo­ken pub­licly about what happened.

The crew mem­bers told in­ves­ti­ga­tors in “very lengthy, de­tailed, com­pre­hen­sive in­ter­views” what Jen­nifer Homendy, a mem­ber of the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board, called “a har­row­ing story of the mo­ments be­fore the fire erupted on the ves­sel.”

One said he awoke to a noise and saw flames “erupt­ing” from the ship’s gal­ley be­low, Homendy said. He tried to get down a lad­der, but flames had al­ready en­gulfed it.

Crew mem­bers then jumped from the ship’s bridge to its main deck — one break­ing a leg in the ef­fort — and tried to get through the dou­ble doors of the gal­ley, un­der which the ship’s 33 pas­sen­gers and a 26-year-old crew mem­ber slept.

With the gal­ley’s doors on fire, they then went around to the front of the ves­sel to try and get through win­dows but couldn’t.

“At that point, due to heat, flames and smoke, the crew had to jump from the boat,” Homendy said.

Two mem­bers jumped over­board and swam to the back of the ves­sel to re­trieve a sk­iff and res­cue the re­main­ing crew. They steered the sk­iff to a boat an­chored nearby and called for help and then re­turned to the Con­cep­tion to see if they could res­cue any sur­vivors. None were found.

The 34 vic­tims died af­ter flames above deck blocked the one stair­way and the hatch lead­ing from sleep­ing bunks to the up­per decks and gave those be­low vir­tu­ally no chance of get­ting out, au­thor­i­ties have said.

One victim’s body re­mained miss­ing Thurs­day as fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors con­tin­ued to in­ter­view the crew of the Con­cep­tion.

Au­thor­i­ties said they are ex­am­in­ing po­ten­tial ig­ni­tion sources of a deadly fire on the scuba div­ing boat, in­clud­ing elec­tron­ics aboard the ves­sel. In­ves­ti­ga­tors know pho­tog­ra­phy equip­ment, bat­ter­ies and other elec­tron­ics were stored and plugged in on the Con­cep­tion.

“We are not ruling any­thing out at this point,” she said.

Homendy also said she had in­spected a ves­sel sim­i­lar to the Con­cep­tion and was con­cerned about the ac­ces­si­bil­ity of its emergency exit hatch and pos­si­ble dif­fi­cul­ties get­ting to safety.

The Con­cep­tion had been in full compliance with Coast Guard reg­u­la­tions, of­fi­cials said.

Also Thurs­day, the owners of the dive boat filed a law­suit to avoid li­a­bil­ity in the case.

Truth Aquat­ics Inc., which owned the Con­cep­tion, filed the law­suit in U.S. District Court un­der a pre-Civil War pro­vi­sion of mar­itime law that al­lows it to limit its li­a­bil­ity. The law­suit ar­gues the com­pany and owners Glen and Dana Frit­zler made the boat sea­wor­thy and the craft was prop­erly manned and equipped.

The fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­tin­ued as divers re­sumed a search for the last victim who re­mained miss­ing. Divers have pulled 33 bod­ies from the seabed and the charred wreck­age of the sunken, over­turned boat.

Of­fi­cials said they ex­pected to in­ter­view the cap­tain Thurs­day.

CHRIS­TIAN MON­TER­ROSA/AP

Hand­crafted me­men­tos for the 34 peo­ple who died in the La­bor Day fire on the dive boat Con­cep­tion are seen at a me­mo­rial on the Santa Bar­bara Har­bor in Cal­i­for­nia.

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