There Were Numerous Safety Issues On California Boat That Caught Fire, Killing 34, Preliminary Investigation Suggests

Thirty-three passengers and one crew member were trapped below deck on the Conception when a fast-moving fire swept through the vessel in the middle of the night.

By Sharon Lynn Pruitt
Santa Cruz Island Boat Fire G

As officials continue their investigation into the California boat fire that claimed 34 lives earlier this week, preliminary observations suggest that the vessel had a number of troubling safety problems that may have led to the deadly catastrophe.

The boat, called the Conception, failed to have a “roaming night watchman” on duty whose job it would have been to notify passengers in the event of any emergencies, the Los Angeles Times reports, citing unnamed law enforcement sources who asked to remain anonymous. Also under question is whether the boat’s crew had been trained on what to do in the event of an emergency, or if the more than 30 passengers aboard the vessel had been given a safety briefing, the sources continued.

The boat was near Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands National Park when it caught fire at around 3 a.m. on Labor Day. The ship’s captain and four crew members were able to jump from the boat after the fire started and were rescued, while all 33 passengers, who were on a three-day scuba diving trip, and one member of the crew died.

The cause of the fire is still unknown, and the investigation, which is still in the early stages, may take months to complete, according to the Times’ anonymous sources.

Jennifer Homendy, who is overseeing the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the tragedy, told the Times that her agency is looking into the vessel’s electrical wiring.

“Did that provide the ignition source? But we’re not closing in on that,” she said. “We’re not ruling out anything at this point.”

There seems to have been little to no warning before the fire broke out, with Homendy telling the Times that one crew member reported to authorities that they did not hear a smoke alarm, smell any smoke, or hear anything before seeing the flames. Those who survived told authorities that the blaze was too powerful to save anyone below deck.

“What’s emerging from the interviews is a harrowing story of the last few minutes before the boat was engulfed in flames,” she said. “They felt that they had done what they could do in a very panicked situation.”

Homendy also toured a boat similar to the Conception, called the Vision, on Wednesday, and told the paper that that vessel also had only one smoke alarm on board, but that alarm isn’t part of any broader system wired throughout the boat, as such measures were not required at the time both boats were manufactured. The smoke alarm on board the Conception is the type that can be purchased at Home Depot, she said.

Also troubling was the escape hatch on the Conception, with Homendy describing it as “small” and “difficult to access.” She and other investigators reported that the bunk area in general was difficult to get around in with the lights off, which is what it would have been like for the passengers on board that night.

While no criminal charges have been filed in relation to the tragedy, that is still a possibility, pending the results of investigations into what caused the fire, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.

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