It’s a painstaking wait for dozens of mourners gathering in Santa Barbara, Calif. They’re waiting for the loved ones to be identified and pronounced dead.
So far, crews have recovered 33 bodies – with one still missing – after the fire ripped through the Conception, a vessel owned and operated by Truth Aquatics. Five crew members, who were positioned higher in the boat, survived by jumping from away from the flames.
Investigators will need to determine the cause of the fire, the causes of death for the victims, and whether they were able to escape their sleeping quarters, Rod Sullivan, a Florida-based maritime attorney, told Fox News. “This fire spread quickly, so you'd be looking for the presence of a source of fuel, called an accelerant.
"This boat supplied nitrox as a diving gas. I'd be looking closely at the nitrox generator and compressor.”
On Wednesday, the day after the search-and-rescue mission made the grim transition to search and recovery, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) dispatched a team to try to get at the cause of the calamity.
The NTSB, along with the U.S. Coast Guard and other county and federal agencies, are all involved in the search for answers.
Jennifer Homendy, an NTSB board member, said they were in the process of reviewing safety records and using sonar technology to scan and map the wreckage.
As it stood, the charred remains of the 75-foot commercial vessel were languishing on the ocean floor – submerged and inverted in more than 60 feet of water. Plans are underway for crews to raise the remnants of the boat as the investigation grinds on.
Federal officials interviewed four of the five surviving crew members. Their alcohol tests came back negative, while drug test results were still outstanding. Homendy described everyone involved as “cooperative.”
The Conception was one of three vessels owned by Truth Aquatics, which is highly regarded in the close-knit California dive community. Homendy and other NTSB officials are also looking at the company's vessel Vision, which bears similarities to the Conception.
The Santa Barbara County sheriff made an early determination that the fast-moving flames likely blocked the narrow stairway exit route and escape hatch. Thus, passengers below deck were not able to get out. Moreover, Adam Tucker, the NTSB investigator in charge, confirmed that the Conception was not mandated to have a black box.
Coast Guard Capt. Jason Neubauer also said that vessel was not required to have a sprinkler system installed.
It's expected that the NTSB will release preliminary findings next week, as such reports are generally produced within the first 10 days of the investigation. The initial report will contain only facts, Homendy said, and will not draw conclusions.
As for anything more definitive, the timeline is somewhat more protracted. The final report is projected to take between 12 and 18 months to generate.
Andrew Norris, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran, casualty investigation specialist and maritime attorney, told Fox News that, according to the public database, the Conception was last inspected in February of this year and passed with no deficiencies. Truth Aquatics immediately addressed two violations pertaining to safety issues associated with the Conception in recent years.
All its boats have undergone inspections by the Coast Guard on an annual basis.
“Investigators will be looking at whether the cause was material, maintenance or operational,” he said. “Presumably, the first sign of smoke should have triggered the smoke detector, yet nobody got out. That tells me that the fire was sudden and intense.”
Norris underscored that the investigation will likely combine complex forensics and testimony.
One of the surviving crew members, who escaped the engulfed boat on a dinghy and climbed onboard an anchored fishing boat, told the boat’s owner, Shirley Hansen – as reported in The Los Angeles Times – that he suspected the fire had started in the galley, where cellphones and other electronic devices were left to charge overnight. It remained to be seen whether lithium batteries played any role; the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has barred such items from being stowed as part of carry-on luggage, allowing them only in checked baggage when powered off.
Such restrictions may not be enforced strictly on ocean transportation.
“It is entirely possible for a charger in the dining area to start a fire. People take off layers during the day and sometimes forget jackets on the benches,” Sarina Elliot, who has undertaken multiple trips with the company since 2015, told Fox News. “They often fall behind the seat cushions and could provide combustible material, especially when covering a hot charger.”
She recalled that coming down the stairs, one could see a platform next to the crew bunks at the base, “full of extension cords and chargers.”
“One trip, there were many people charging cameras and light batteries. The cords were hot to touch, and I do recall thinking that it could be a fire hazard,” Elliot said. “People do use the dining area outlets to charge primarily. There are many, spaced three to four feet along the wall. The dining area is great during the day for charging because wet bodies are not allowed below deck. However, at night people move charging devices to the sleeping area, in my experience. It’s a carpeted platform.”
Neil Hogue, another regular Conception diver, echoed that there were “typically multiple cameras and batteries that are constantly charging all around the boats.”
“There has not been any policy on where lithium batteries are stored or charged,” he said.
However, it remained unclear how many charging outlets were in the sleeping areas. Equally unclear was the extent to which they were used.
Another longtime diving instructor, Eddie Gomez, pointed out that while the boat’s original design – stemming from the late 1970s – called for electrical outlets in sleeping quarters, crews either removed them at some point or never installed them in the first place.
Todd Walker, another devoted diver who had been on the Conception many times, concurred that there were no outlets for passenger use in the bunk area, for safety reasons. But he observed there were “one or two that the crew typically uses for the vacuum cleaner.”
“I wouldn't be surprised if they find that a cellphone or battery charger went bad in the galley,” he said. “There are also smoke detectors in the bunk room, so if the fire started there, people would have been able to hear them.”
Another theory likely being explored, experts surmised, would be that the inferno started in the bunk area and spread quickly from one end to other, leaving no time for passengers to escape.
“Having a posted person on watch should be a mandatory standard operating procedure for any company operating a vessel on and offshore,” noted a longtime maritime security and risk professional who requested anonymity. “Federal guidelines should mandate fire suppression. So, was there a crew member awake and on watch, since the fire was able to block escape hatches?”
Sullivan also said that because no one escaped from below deck, carbon monoxide poisoning also may have played a part.
“Carbon monoxide kills silently, and if it filled the space, it's possible that everyone died in their sleep,” he said. “I think it's unlikely that they died from burns.”
It's likely too early to say whether negligence to any degree played a part. The U.S. Coast Guard repeatedly affirmed that the Conception was in “full compliance” with mandatory regulations.
It was the deadliest disaster in California’s maritime history, which has stretched over a century and a half. It remains to be seen whether that will prod the industry to make any changes to the layouts and maintenance of such vessels.
“We have met with families who lost loved ones. They are the most important people to us now,” Homendy said. “Those families are why we are here; they are why we do this job.”