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 Labour 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 of them 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 crewmember 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.
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.
Legal move to limit liability
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.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom identified two of the victims as Adrian Dahood-Fritz and her husband Andrew Fritz. Dahood-Fritz had worked for the California Natural Resources Agency’s Ocean Protection Council since April as a senior environmental scientist.
“Adrian led the state’s efforts to manage California’s network of marine protected areas, and she cared deeply about the ocean and biodiversity,” Newsom said in a statement. “She embodied marine conservation and was a highly accomplished and respected scientific researcher.”
The other victims included two high schoolers, a hairdresser, marine biologist, software engineers, special effects designer for Disney, nature photographer, nurse and family of five celebrating a birthday.
Their common love of scuba diving led them to the ruggedly beautiful coastline of the Channel Islands for a three-day excursion planned through Labour Day.
Five crew members, including the captain, were above deck and managed to escape. Officials said they expected to interview the captain Thursday.