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Criminal probe launched into dive boat disaster that claimed 34 lives

2019-09-09

Authorities have launched a criminal investigation into the fiery dive boat disaster that killed 34 people off the coast of Southern California last week, the Daily News confirmed.

Federal search warrants were executed Sunday at the Santa Barbara office of the doomed boat’s owner Truth Aquatics as well as the company’s remaining vessels, Truth and Vision, sources said.

“We have confirmed that the Coast Guard, the FBI, the ATF and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office have executed federal search warrants in Santa Barbara. We are participating in the joint investigation,” a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles said.

“No criminal charges have been filed at this time,” an FBI spokeswoman told The News.

The searches remained ongoing Monday, sources said.

The cause of the fire has not yet been determined and likely will play a role in any charging decision, but possible safety lapses, if found, could lead to potential negligence charges.

One possible charge could be seaman’s manslaughter. It’s based on a federal statute that says a captain, crew member or vessel owner can be held liable for any “misconduct, negligence or inattention” to duties that results in loss of life.

The Los Angeles Times reported last week that the Conception failed to have a “roaming nightwatchman” awake at the time the fire sparked.

The mandatory monitor is required to stay alert and give early warning to passengers of threats such as a fire, sources familiar with the investigation told the newspaper.

Investigators said they’ve interviewed the captain and four surviving crew members in the wake of the Sept. 2 tragedy off the northern coast of Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands.

Thirty-three passengers and one crew member were trapped below deck in a jam-packed bunk room when the fire broke out around 3 a.m. Monday on the 75-foot wooden vessel.

Initial examinations indicate the victims died of smoke inhalation before being burned, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff said last week.

All but one body has been found, officials said.

Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board did not comment on any identified lapses during a press conference Thursday.

Instead, they focused on the “harrowing” timeline emerging from their interviews with the crew members who survived the horrific blaze.

They said one of the survivors said he was asleep on the uppermost level of the boat when he was roused by something that wasn’t a smoke alarm.

“He awoke to a noise and left his bunk, (exited) out of the wheelhouse deck and saw flames erupting from the galley area,” NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said.

“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,” she said.

“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.