California dive boat fire

No night watchman on duty: Safety panel

Divers raised the 23m-long Conception on Thursday from 20m below the surface of the Pacific Ocean off Santa Cruz Island, California. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Divers raised the 23m-long Conception on Thursday from 20m below the surface of the Pacific Ocean off Santa Cruz Island, California. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Safety officials say this was against rules; fire could have been caused by lithium devices

LOS ANGELES • A dive boat that caught fire and sank off the California coast, killing 34 people including two Singaporeans, had no night watchman on duty, as required, when the flames erupted, federal safety officials said.

All six crew members aboard the 23m-long Conception were asleep, five in berths behind the wheelhouse and the sixth in a below-decks room, when the blaze broke out in the early hours of Sept 2, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wrote on Thursday in a two-page preliminary report.

Previously, a US Coast Guard captain had said the boat was required by a safety certificate to assign such a night watchman or "rover".

The five surviving crew members told investigators that by the time they became aware of the flames, it was too late to save the passengers and sixth crew member who had been sleeping below decks.

The federal authorities are conducting a criminal investigation.

The two Singaporean victims were University of California, Berkeley postgraduate student Tan Wei, 26, and researcher Sunil Singh Sandhu, 46.

Truth Aquatics, the Santa Barbara-based dive company that owns the boat, has sought to avoid liability by invoking a 19th-century law that has shielded vessel owners from costly disasters such as the sinking of the Titanic. That move has been criticised as lacking in compassion for the victims and their families.

 
 
 

Divers raised the boat on Thursday afternoon from 20m below the surface of the Pacific Ocean off Santa Cruz Island.

That delicate operation had been delayed due to weather conditions.

Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the conflagration, considered one of California's worst maritime disasters, the NTSB report said, adding that the crew members were not aware of any mechanical or electrical issues with the vessel.

The Coast Guard on Wednesday issued a safety bulletin urging boat owners and captains to consider limiting the use of lithium-ion batteries and chargers on board. They are also urged to review escape routes and crew training.

The document suggested investigators are looking into the possibility that the fire was ignited by lithium devices or chargers in sleeping quarters and that passengers could not escape once flames were raging in the dark, cramped space.

The last body was recovered on Wednesday and the coroner's investigators said they were using DNA testing to confirm the identities of seven victims.

Sheriff's deputies and FBI agents have also searched offices and two other ships belonging to Truth Aquatics.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2019, with the headline 'No night watchman on duty: Safety panel'. Print Edition | Subscribe