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Feds Say Conception Boat Fire Cause Unknown, But Safety Lapses To Blame

Image from September 2019 video released by the U.S. Coast Guard shows a video screen on one of its helicopters, as the crew responded to a boat fire on the Conception off Santa Cruz Island near Santa Barbara. (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard via AP)
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We may never know what sparked the flames that killed 34 people onboard the Conception dive boat last year, as federal investigators said today they couldn't find the exact cause of that deadly fire.

When the 75-foot liveaboard vessel sank last year, it sat in deep water for several days before it was finally salvaged. That destroyed any physical evidence that could have led investigators to the source of the fire, though they determined that it started behind the boat’s salon area, where electronic devices were recharging.

And while investigators pointed the finger at the boat’s operator for numerous safety lapses leading up to Conception's final voyage, they say the company isn’t the only one to blame.

The National Transportation Safety Board cited Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics for failing, among other things, to implement a roving night watch, which they say could have alerted the crew before the flames grew out of control. All six crew members were asleep when the fire broke out.

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But investigators also called out the U.S. Coast Guard’s own safety regulations. For instance, the Coast Guard hasn’t cited a passenger vessel for not having a roving watch since the early 1990s. And while the boat’s design met the agency’s requirements for emergency escape routes, the NTSB found that it may have inadvertently trapped passengers below deck.

NTSB chair Robert Sumwalt said updating and enforcing those rules could have saved lives:

“If there had been a safety management system that required auditing, required a feedback loop, we might not be here today. And those 34 people would be.”

The board issued a handful of recommendations to the Coast Guard, including an inspection program to verify roving watches, and new requirements for small vessels to install interconnected smoke detectors.

A separate federal criminal investigation into the fire is already under way. The families of four people who died on the boat filed a wrongful death suit against Truth Aquatics earlier this year.

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