Captain of doomed boat Conception charged in fire that killed 34 in California

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Dive boat Conception is engulfed in flames after a fire broke out aboard the scuba diving vessel off the Southern California coast in 2019.

Dive boat Conception is engulfed in flames after a fire broke out aboard the scuba diving vessel off the Southern California coast in 2019. Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP

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The captain of the Conception — the scuba diving boat that went down in flames off the coast of California last year — was indicted Tuesday on federal manslaughter charges in the deaths of the 34 people trapped below deck.

Jerry Nehl Boylan, 67, was charged with 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter for allegedly causing the deaths through his “misconduct, negligence, and inattention to his duties,” according to the US Attorney’s office in Los Angeles.

“As a result of the alleged failures of Captain Boylan to follow well-established safety rules, a pleasant holiday dive trip turned into a hellish nightmare as passengers and one crew member found themselves trapped in a fiery bunkroom with no means of escape,” US Attorney Nick Hanna said in a statement.

Prosecutors singled out three alleged violations: failing to train his crew, conduct fire drills and have a roving night watchman on the 79-foot Conception, who would have detected the blaze sooner.

The charges come more than a year after the vessel caught fire and sank early on Sept. 2, 2019, during the last day of a Labor Day weekend scuba diving excursion near Santa Cruz Island off Santa Barbara.

The captain — who made a chilling distress call — and four crew members had all been asleep on the upper deck when the blaze broke out and were able to escape.

The 33 passengers and one crew member stuck in the bunkroom were far less lucky. All of them died of smoke inhalation.

Some of the dead, who ranged in age from 16 to 62, were found with their shoes on, leading to speculation that they had tried to flee, but that a stairwell and small hatch — the only exits to the upper deck — had been blocked off by flames.

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Captain Jerry Boylan is brought back to a Coast Guard station.

‘No escape’ in tragic California boat fire

The cause of the fire is still a mystery — and could remain that way since the blaze began in an area where divers had plugged in phones, flashlights and other items with combustible batteries.

The summary of Boylan’s alleged failures that night mirror those reported by the National Transportation Safety Board, which earlier this year faulted the boat’s owner, Truth Aquatics Inc., for lack of oversight.

The families of 32 victims have filed claims against the boat owners, Glen and Dana Fritzler, and the company.

The company has filed suit in federal court under a provision in maritime law to try and skirt payouts to the families.

The charges against Boylan each carry a possible 10-year prison term. They were brought under an old pre-Civil War law aimed at holding captains responsible for maritime disasters, which were far more common at the time.

Boylan is expected to surrender to federal authorities in the coming weeks.

Surviving crew member thought phone charging station might have sparked boat fire

NTSB member Jennifer Homendy looks over the Vision, sister ship to the Conception.

NTSB member Jennifer Homendy looks over the Vision, sister ship to the Conception, with other officials Wednesday.

One of the crew members aboard the dive boat Conception hadn’t been asleep long when a noise jolted him awake.

He swung open the door of the wheelhouse — the top level of the 75-foot boat, located just above the galley — and was greeted by flames.

As the fire raged in the predawn hours of Labor Day, the vessel’s captain made a frantic mayday call to the Coast Guard. Then he and four crew members jumped from the wheelhouse and climbed into a dinghy to get help from the Grape Escape, a fishing boat anchored nearby off Santa Cruz Island.

Once aboard, the crew member who had been jolted awake shook as he recounted the horrific story to Grape Escape owner Shirley Hansen. His theory, Hansen said, was that the fire started in the galley, where cellphones and cameras had been plugged in to charge overnight.

“The impression I got was that the fire was already too big to do anything,” Hansen said in an interview Wednesday.

The cause of the fire, which killed 34 people, is now the subject of an intensive investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, the U.S. Coast Guard and other federal and county agencies. Investigators are trying to determine where and how it started.

SANTA CRUZ ISLAND, CALIF. -- THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 12, 2019: The burned hulk of the Conception is brought to the surface by a salvage team off Santa Cruz Island in the Santa Barbara Channel off of Santa Cruz Island, Calif., on Sept. 12, 2019. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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.

The concern about the charging station in the galley is one possibility.

Roy Hauser, who designed the Conception and commissioned its construction in 1981, suggested another. He said he thought, based in part on footage he viewed of the wood-hulled boat being ravaged by fire, that the blaze started in the bunk area and spread so rapidly that the 34 people there could not get out.

The burned hulk of the Conception is brought to the surface by a salvage team off Santa Cruz Island.

The burned hulk of the Conception is brought to the surface by a salvage team off Santa Cruz Island. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

The burned hulk of the Conception is brought to the surface by a salvage team off Santa Cruz Island.

The burned hulk of the Conception is brought to the surface by a salvage team off Santa Cruz Island. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

A mourner pays her respects at a memorial made up of scuba tanks, one for each victim, during the vigil at Chase Palm Park on Friday night.

A mourner pays her respects at a memorial made up of scuba tanks, one for each victim, during the vigil at Chase Palm Park on Friday night. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Mourners gather for a vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening honoring the victims of the Conception boat fire that broke out off Santa Cruz Island before dawn Monday and claimed 34 lives.

Mourners gather for a vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening honoring the victims of the Conception boat fire that broke out off Santa Cruz Island before dawn Monday and claimed 34 lives. (Luis Sinco)

Glen Fritzler, left, co-owner of Truth Aquatics and the dive boat Conception, consoles an attendee during a vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening.

Glen Fritzler, left, co-owner of Truth Aquatics and the dive boat Conception, consoles an attendee during a vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

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Scuba diver Julia Donath joins mourners for a vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening to honor the 34 victims that died in the Conception boat fire.

Scuba diver Julia Donath joins mourners for a vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening to honor the 34 victims that died in the Conception boat fire. (Luis Sinco)

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, with other officials, presents a wreath during the vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening homor the 34 victims of the Conception boat fire.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, with other officials, presents a wreath during the vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening homor the 34 victims of the Conception boat fire. (Luis Sinco)

Mourners gather for a vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening honoring the victims of the Conception boat fire that broke out off Santa Cruz Island before dawn Monday and claimed 34 lives.

Mourners gather for a vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening honoring the victims of the Conception boat fire that broke out off Santa Cruz Island before dawn Monday and claimed 34 lives. (Luis Sinco)

Santa Monica vigil

Some of the thousands of people join a vigil on the beach in honor of those who lost their lives in the Conception boat fire along the Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Deep Blue Scuba Center vigil

Allison Metchikof, left and Rachel Levi, right, embrace during a vigil hosted by Deep Blue Scuba Center in honor of the victims aboard the dive ship Conception in Long Beach. (Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Divers and support crews from many agencies work the scene of the dive boat fire off Santa Cruz Island.

Divers and support crews from many agencies work the scene of the dive boat fire off Santa Cruz Island. (Santa Barbara County)

The derrick barge Salta Verde off the coast of Santa Cruz Island upon its arrival late Wednesday at the scene of the wreck of the dive boat Conception.

The derrick barge Salta Verde off the coast of Santa Cruz Island upon its arrival late Wednesday at the scene of the wreck of the dive boat Conception. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The search area where divers were looking through the sunken wreckage of the Conception is outlined.

The search area where divers were looking through the sunken wreckage of the Conception is outlined. (KABC-TV)

Divers and support crews from many agencies work the scene of the dive boat fire off Santa Cruz Island.

Divers and support crews from many agencies work the scene of the dive boat fire off Santa Cruz Island. (Santa Barbara County)

The owners of Truth Aquatics and the dive boat Conception, Glen and Dana Fritzler, right, and their daughter Ashley, left, during an interview in Santa Barbara, Calif.

The owners of Truth Aquatics and the dive boat Conception, Glen and Dana Fritzler, right, and their daughter Ashley, left, during an interview in Santa Barbara, Calif. (KEYT-TV)

Lost at Sea Memorial

Surfer Tim DeVries of Santa Barbara views the “Lost at Sea Memorial” at the end of the Santa Barbara Harbor jetty Thursday morning. The memorial reads “In memory of our loved ones whose lives and destinies have been claimed by the sea.” (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

FBI at memorial for dive boat victims

Members of the FBI dive team view a growing memorial prior to departing Thursday morning to the site of the dive boat tragedy. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

People pay their respects at a makeshift memorial in Santa Barbara for victims of the deadly dive boat fire off Santa Cruz Island. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

CJ Andelman, 12, of Santa Barbara, who has become a scuba diver along with her twin sister, plays her harp Wednesday morning during the memorial at Santa Barbara Harbor. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

Jennifer Homendy, center, of the National Transportation Safety Board, with other NTSB and Coast Guard officials on Santa Barbara Harbor aboard Vision, the sister ship to Conception. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

Santa Barbara resident Britany Martin lets her son Theo, 2, place flowers at a growing memorial to the fire victims at Santa Barbara Harbor. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

FBI dive team members prepare to leave Santa Barbara Harbor on Wednesday morning and head to the site of the fire. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

A memorial is growing at Santa Barbara Harbor, where the dive boat Conception was based. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

Olivia, left, sister of a female crew member thought to have died in the boat fire, hugs Jennifer Stafford, who placed flowers at Santa Barbara Harbor. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

Boat fire

Search and rescue personnel remove one of more than a dozen body bags in Santa Barbara Harbor after the Conception diving boat caught fire early Monday. (Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

Boat fire

After hanging a dive flag in memory of the victims, JJ Lambert, 38, who said he had dived off the Conception as a kid, is hugged by Jenna Marsala, 33, at Santa Barbara Harbor near where the Conception departed. (Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

Boat fire

Orlando Aldana places candles, one for each person aboard the Conception, at a makeshift memorial at Sea Landing in the Santa Barbara Harbor. (Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

Boat fire

At Santa Barbara Harbor, James Miranda kneels in prayer. “It’s a very sad moment for California,” he said. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

Rescuers and law enforcement, on a boat docked at Santa Barbara Harbor, move a body that was recovered after Monday’s deadly boat fire. (Daniel Dreifuss / Associated Press)

Boat fire

Boat fire

U.S. Coast Guard searches for victims of the dive boat fire off Santa Cruz Island on Monday afternoon. (Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times )

Boat fire

Dive boat captain Jerry Boylan is brought back to U.S. Coast Guard headquarters at Channel Islands Harbor on Monday in Oxnard. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

Firefighters arrive back at the U.S. Coast Guard Station after battling the fire. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

A victim from a dive boat that caught fire off the Ventura County coast early Monday morning is taken to an ambulance in Oxnard. (OnScene.TV)

Boat fire

The captain of the Grape Escape boat, which rescued survivors of a boat fire off the Channel Islands, looks on near the U.S. Coast Guard Station Channel Islands in Oxnard on Monday. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Boat fire

Firefighters battle a blaze on a dive boat near Santa Cruz Island. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

Boat fire

A diving boat fire near Santa Cruz Island off the Ventura County coast. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

The dive boat Conception is engulfed in flames after a deadly fire broke out aboard the vessel off the Southern California Coast.

The dive boat Conception is engulfed in flames after a deadly fire broke out aboard the vessel off the Southern California Coast. (Santa Barbara County)

The dive boat Conception seen at dawn Monday burns off Santa Cruz Island.

The dive boat Conception seen at dawn Monday burns off Santa Cruz Island. (Santa Barbara County Fire)

Conception

“This had to have been, in my estimation, one of those lithium battery chargers,” Hauser told The Times. “This happened in the belly of the boat. Those people did not have a chance to get out: From stem to stern, that boat was burning.”

The Conception was one of three dive boats operated out of Santa Barbara Harbor by Truth Aquatics Inc., a long-established operation founded by Hauser in 1974 and now owned by Glen Fritzler.

SANTA BARBARA CA SEPTEMBER 4, 2019 -- CJ Andelman, 12, from Santa Barbara, who with her twin sister have recently become scuba divers, plays her harp at the memorial in Santa Barbara Harbor Wednesday morning, September 4, 2019. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Lack of escape routes in boat fire becomes focus as investigation intensifies

The diesel-powered boat had three decks: the wheelhouse on top, the main dive deck in the middle and the bunk room on the bottom.

The sleeping area had 20 single bunks and 13 doubles, some stacked three high, records show. When fire consumed the boat, the bunks were occupied by 33 passengers and one crew member.

For those in the bunk room, there were two exits. At the bow end of the room was a staircase that led up to the galley area. Toward the stern, an escape hatch located above one of the bunks led to a mess area next to the galley — and just a few feet from the large, open main deck.

Officials said Tuesday that both exits from the bunk area were blocked by fire. Hauser said passengers should not have been impeded by flames — if they had been able to get to the escape hatch from the bunk room.

“When you come out of the escape hatch, you look straight out to the main deck — you’re within 3 or 4 feet of the main deck. All you have to do is lurch forward,” Hauser said. “I don’t think those people ever had a chance to get out of their bunks.”

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Britany Martin and son Theo, 2, at a memorial for boat fire victims in Santa Barbara Harbor

Santa Barbara resident Britany Martin and son Theo, 2, place flowers at a memorial to boat fire victims in Santa Barbara Harbor.

Boat fires often start in engine compartments, where fuel ignition sources can combine. Other such fires have been traced to electrical sources, such as wiring harnesses or batteries, or to external causes such as fires in marinas or storage facilities.

Hauser said the rapid spread of fire caused by a lithium battery could explain why no one got out.

SANTA BARBARA CA SEPTEMBER 3, 2019 -- A memorial is growing at Santa Barbara Harbor where the dive boat Conception was based Tuesday morning, September 3, 2019. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

California boat fire victims: United by a love for ocean, taken in tragedy. These are their stories

The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits airline passengers from stowing devices containing lithium batteries — such as those in cellphones, laptops and cameras — in checked luggage unless they are turned off and protected from damage. As of Aug. 1, the FAA had recorded 265 air or airport incidents involving lithium batteries in cargo or baggage.

The U.S. Navy and others in the dive industry also have expressed concerns about lithium batteries, which in various sizes are used to power everything from automobiles to hoverboards. They also power smaller devices, such as cellphones and camera equipment, that can be carried aboard boats.

“Lithium cells and batteries offer many advantages compared to other power sources,” U.S. Navy guidelines state. “However, they are high-energy devices and shall be considered hazardous at all times. “

Mike Strong, a Phoenix-area PADI master dive instructor, said, “We’ve all seen these batteries go,” alluding to reports of cellphones, e-cigarettes and lithium car batteries catching fire.

“They’re a major safety issue,” he said, noting that he charges his batteries in a fireproof container.

And yet, on some boats, people have their camera and dive equipment charging at outlets in bunk rooms, in the galley or in the salon, he said.

Surviving crew member thought phone charging station might have sparked boat fire

NTSB member Jennifer Homendy looks over the Vision, sister ship to the Conception.

NTSB member Jennifer Homendy looks over the Vision, sister ship to the Conception, with other officials Wednesday.

One of the crew members aboard the dive boat Conception hadn’t been asleep long when a noise jolted him awake.

He swung open the door of the wheelhouse — the top level of the 75-foot boat, located just above the galley — and was greeted by flames.

As the fire raged in the predawn hours of Labor Day, the vessel’s captain made a frantic mayday call to the Coast Guard. Then he and four crew members jumped from the wheelhouse and climbed into a dinghy to get help from the Grape Escape, a fishing boat anchored nearby off Santa Cruz Island.

Once aboard, the crew member who had been jolted awake shook as he recounted the horrific story to Grape Escape owner Shirley Hansen. His theory, Hansen said, was that the fire started in the galley, where cellphones and cameras had been plugged in to charge overnight.

“The impression I got was that the fire was already too big to do anything,” Hansen said in an interview Wednesday.

The cause of the fire, which killed 34 people, is now the subject of an intensive investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, the U.S. Coast Guard and other federal and county agencies. Investigators are trying to determine where and how it started.

SANTA CRUZ ISLAND, CALIF. -- THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 12, 2019: The burned hulk of the Conception is brought to the surface by a salvage team off Santa Cruz Island in the Santa Barbara Channel off of Santa Cruz Island, Calif., on Sept. 12, 2019. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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.

The concern about the charging station in the galley is one possibility.

Roy Hauser, who designed the Conception and commissioned its construction in 1981, suggested another. He said he thought, based in part on footage he viewed of the wood-hulled boat being ravaged by fire, that the blaze started in the bunk area and spread so rapidly that the 34 people there could not get out.

The burned hulk of the Conception is brought to the surface by a salvage team off Santa Cruz Island.

The burned hulk of the Conception is brought to the surface by a salvage team off Santa Cruz Island. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

The burned hulk of the Conception is brought to the surface by a salvage team off Santa Cruz Island.

The burned hulk of the Conception is brought to the surface by a salvage team off Santa Cruz Island. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

A mourner pays her respects at a memorial made up of scuba tanks, one for each victim, during the vigil at Chase Palm Park on Friday night.

A mourner pays her respects at a memorial made up of scuba tanks, one for each victim, during the vigil at Chase Palm Park on Friday night. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Mourners gather for a vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening honoring the victims of the Conception boat fire that broke out off Santa Cruz Island before dawn Monday and claimed 34 lives.

Mourners gather for a vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening honoring the victims of the Conception boat fire that broke out off Santa Cruz Island before dawn Monday and claimed 34 lives. (Luis Sinco)

Glen Fritzler, left, co-owner of Truth Aquatics and the dive boat Conception, consoles an attendee during a vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening.

Glen Fritzler, left, co-owner of Truth Aquatics and the dive boat Conception, consoles an attendee during a vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Scuba diver Julia Donath joins mourners for a vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening to honor the 34 victims that died in the Conception boat fire.

Scuba diver Julia Donath joins mourners for a vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening to honor the 34 victims that died in the Conception boat fire. (Luis Sinco)

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, with other officials, presents a wreath during the vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening homor the 34 victims of the Conception boat fire.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, with other officials, presents a wreath during the vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening homor the 34 victims of the Conception boat fire. (Luis Sinco)

Mourners gather for a vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening honoring the victims of the Conception boat fire that broke out off Santa Cruz Island before dawn Monday and claimed 34 lives.

Mourners gather for a vigil at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara on Friday evening honoring the victims of the Conception boat fire that broke out off Santa Cruz Island before dawn Monday and claimed 34 lives. (Luis Sinco)

Santa Monica vigil

Some of the thousands of people join a vigil on the beach in honor of those who lost their lives in the Conception boat fire along the Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Deep Blue Scuba Center vigil

Allison Metchikof, left and Rachel Levi, right, embrace during a vigil hosted by Deep Blue Scuba Center in honor of the victims aboard the dive ship Conception in Long Beach. (Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Divers and support crews from many agencies work the scene of the dive boat fire off Santa Cruz Island.

Divers and support crews from many agencies work the scene of the dive boat fire off Santa Cruz Island. (Santa Barbara County)

The derrick barge Salta Verde off the coast of Santa Cruz Island upon its arrival late Wednesday at the scene of the wreck of the dive boat Conception.

The derrick barge Salta Verde off the coast of Santa Cruz Island upon its arrival late Wednesday at the scene of the wreck of the dive boat Conception. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The search area where divers were looking through the sunken wreckage of the Conception is outlined.

The search area where divers were looking through the sunken wreckage of the Conception is outlined. (KABC-TV)

Divers and support crews from many agencies work the scene of the dive boat fire off Santa Cruz Island.

Divers and support crews from many agencies work the scene of the dive boat fire off Santa Cruz Island. (Santa Barbara County)

The owners of Truth Aquatics and the dive boat Conception, Glen and Dana Fritzler, right, and their daughter Ashley, left, during an interview in Santa Barbara, Calif.

The owners of Truth Aquatics and the dive boat Conception, Glen and Dana Fritzler, right, and their daughter Ashley, left, during an interview in Santa Barbara, Calif. (KEYT-TV)

Lost at Sea Memorial

Surfer Tim DeVries of Santa Barbara views the “Lost at Sea Memorial” at the end of the Santa Barbara Harbor jetty Thursday morning. The memorial reads “In memory of our loved ones whose lives and destinies have been claimed by the sea.” (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

FBI at memorial for dive boat victims

Members of the FBI dive team view a growing memorial prior to departing Thursday morning to the site of the dive boat tragedy. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

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Boat fire

People pay their respects at a makeshift memorial in Santa Barbara for victims of the deadly dive boat fire off Santa Cruz Island. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

CJ Andelman, 12, of Santa Barbara, who has become a scuba diver along with her twin sister, plays her harp Wednesday morning during the memorial at Santa Barbara Harbor. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

Jennifer Homendy, center, of the National Transportation Safety Board, with other NTSB and Coast Guard officials on Santa Barbara Harbor aboard Vision, the sister ship to Conception. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

Santa Barbara resident Britany Martin lets her son Theo, 2, place flowers at a growing memorial to the fire victims at Santa Barbara Harbor. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

FBI dive team members prepare to leave Santa Barbara Harbor on Wednesday morning and head to the site of the fire. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

A memorial is growing at Santa Barbara Harbor, where the dive boat Conception was based. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

Olivia, left, sister of a female crew member thought to have died in the boat fire, hugs Jennifer Stafford, who placed flowers at Santa Barbara Harbor. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

Boat fire

Search and rescue personnel remove one of more than a dozen body bags in Santa Barbara Harbor after the Conception diving boat caught fire early Monday. (Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

Boat fire

After hanging a dive flag in memory of the victims, JJ Lambert, 38, who said he had dived off the Conception as a kid, is hugged by Jenna Marsala, 33, at Santa Barbara Harbor near where the Conception departed. (Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

Boat fire

Orlando Aldana places candles, one for each person aboard the Conception, at a makeshift memorial at Sea Landing in the Santa Barbara Harbor. (Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

Boat fire

At Santa Barbara Harbor, James Miranda kneels in prayer. “It’s a very sad moment for California,” he said. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

Rescuers and law enforcement, on a boat docked at Santa Barbara Harbor, move a body that was recovered after Monday’s deadly boat fire. (Daniel Dreifuss / Associated Press)

Boat fire

Boat fire

U.S. Coast Guard searches for victims of the dive boat fire off Santa Cruz Island on Monday afternoon. (Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times )

Boat fire

Dive boat captain Jerry Boylan is brought back to U.S. Coast Guard headquarters at Channel Islands Harbor on Monday in Oxnard. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

Firefighters arrive back at the U.S. Coast Guard Station after battling the fire. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Boat fire

A victim from a dive boat that caught fire off the Ventura County coast early Monday morning is taken to an ambulance in Oxnard. (OnScene.TV)

Boat fire

The captain of the Grape Escape boat, which rescued survivors of a boat fire off the Channel Islands, looks on near the U.S. Coast Guard Station Channel Islands in Oxnard on Monday. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Boat fire

Firefighters battle a blaze on a dive boat near Santa Cruz Island. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

Boat fire

A diving boat fire near Santa Cruz Island off the Ventura County coast. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

The dive boat Conception is engulfed in flames after a deadly fire broke out aboard the vessel off the Southern California Coast.

The dive boat Conception is engulfed in flames after a deadly fire broke out aboard the vessel off the Southern California Coast. (Santa Barbara County)

The dive boat Conception seen at dawn Monday burns off Santa Cruz Island.

The dive boat Conception seen at dawn Monday burns off Santa Cruz Island. (Santa Barbara County Fire)

Conception

“This had to have been, in my estimation, one of those lithium battery chargers,” Hauser told The Times. “This happened in the belly of the boat. Those people did not have a chance to get out: From stem to stern, that boat was burning.”

The Conception was one of three dive boats operated out of Santa Barbara Harbor by Truth Aquatics Inc., a long-established operation founded by Hauser in 1974 and now owned by Glen Fritzler.

SANTA BARBARA CA SEPTEMBER 4, 2019 -- CJ Andelman, 12, from Santa Barbara, who with her twin sister have recently become scuba divers, plays her harp at the memorial in Santa Barbara Harbor Wednesday morning, September 4, 2019. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Lack of escape routes in boat fire becomes focus as investigation intensifies

The diesel-powered boat had three decks: the wheelhouse on top, the main dive deck in the middle and the bunk room on the bottom.

The sleeping area had 20 single bunks and 13 doubles, some stacked three high, records show. When fire consumed the boat, the bunks were occupied by 33 passengers and one crew member.

For those in the bunk room, there were two exits. At the bow end of the room was a staircase that led up to the galley area. Toward the stern, an escape hatch located above one of the bunks led to a mess area next to the galley — and just a few feet from the large, open main deck.

Officials said Tuesday that both exits from the bunk area were blocked by fire. Hauser said passengers should not have been impeded by flames — if they had been able to get to the escape hatch from the bunk room.

“When you come out of the escape hatch, you look straight out to the main deck — you’re within 3 or 4 feet of the main deck. All you have to do is lurch forward,” Hauser said. “I don’t think those people ever had a chance to get out of their bunks.”

Britany Martin and son Theo, 2, at a memorial for boat fire victims in Santa Barbara Harbor

Santa Barbara resident Britany Martin and son Theo, 2, place flowers at a memorial to boat fire victims in Santa Barbara Harbor.

Boat fires often start in engine compartments, where fuel ignition sources can combine. Other such fires have been traced to electrical sources, such as wiring harnesses or batteries, or to external causes such as fires in marinas or storage facilities.

Hauser said the rapid spread of fire caused by a lithium battery could explain why no one got out.

SANTA BARBARA CA SEPTEMBER 3, 2019 -- A memorial is growing at Santa Barbara Harbor where the dive boat Conception was based Tuesday morning, September 3, 2019. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

California boat fire victims: United by a love for ocean, taken in tragedy. These are their stories

The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits airline passengers from stowing devices containing lithium batteries — such as those in cellphones, laptops and cameras — in checked luggage unless they are turned off and protected from damage. As of Aug. 1, the FAA had recorded 265 air or airport incidents involving lithium batteries in cargo or baggage.

The U.S. Navy and others in the dive industry also have expressed concerns about lithium batteries, which in various sizes are used to power everything from automobiles to hoverboards. They also power smaller devices, such as cellphones and camera equipment, that can be carried aboard boats.

“Lithium cells and batteries offer many advantages compared to other power sources,” U.S. Navy guidelines state. “However, they are high-energy devices and shall be considered hazardous at all times. “

Mike Strong, a Phoenix-area PADI master dive instructor, said, “We’ve all seen these batteries go,” alluding to reports of cellphones, e-cigarettes and lithium car batteries catching fire.

“They’re a major safety issue,” he said, noting that he charges his batteries in a fireproof container.

And yet, on some boats, people have their camera and dive equipment charging at outlets in bunk rooms, in the galley or in the salon, he said.

Source https://nypost.com/2020/12/01/captain-of-doomed-boat-conception-charged-in-fire-that-killed-34-in-ca/

Source https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-09-05/what-caused-fire-aboard-the-conception

Source https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-09-05/what-caused-fire-aboard-the-conception

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