Sunday 22 September 2019

Smoke blamed as investigations continue into California boat tragedy

A vigil has been held to remember the victims.

An attendee kneels in front of scuba tanks that were placed to represent each victim during a vigil (Mark J Terrill/AP)
An attendee kneels in front of scuba tanks that were placed to represent each victim during a vigil (Mark J Terrill/AP)

By Stefanie Dazio and Brian Melley, Associated Press

Dozens of people trapped on a scuba diving boat that caught fire off the Southern California coast appear to have died from smoke inhalation and not burns, authorities have said.

The 34 people who died were sleeping in a cramped bunkroom below the main deck of the Conception when the fire broke out before dawn on Monday.

Preliminary findings on the causes of death, announced by Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, raise the possibility the victims inhaled highly toxic smoke and died in their sleep before the fire took hold.

“The indicators are from the preliminary examination of the bodies that the victims died prior to being burned,” Mr Brown said.

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A growing memorial to those who died aboard the dive boat Conception (Stefanie Dazio/AP)

The revelation came as investigators searched for the cause of the deadly blaze and divers looked for the body of the one missing victim.

The Coast Guard said safety concerns over the weather halted efforts to salvage the boat on Friday.

Clergy and others offered words of solace on Friday evening in a vigil at a Santa Barbara park.

The dead were “our friends and our family members. Our common love for diving binds us together for eternity,” dive instructor Don Barthelmess said.

Thirty-four scuba tanks were arranged in memory of those killed when the Conception caught fire on Monday off Santa Cruz Island.

Twenty-three of the 33 bodies recovered have been positively identified through DNA, and their family members around the world are being notified, Mr Brown said.

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Photographs of loved ones lost in the fire on the scuba boat Conception are placed at a memorial on the Santa Barbara Harbour (Christian Monterrosa/AP)

Relatives have been tracked down as far away as Singapore, Japan and India.

The owner of the boat, Truth Aquatics Inc., pre-emptively filed a lawsuit on Thursday under a pre-Civil War provision of maritime law that could protect it from potentially costly payouts to families of the dead, a move condemned by some observers as disrespectful and callous.

The company said in a statement posted on Friday on Instagram that the lawsuit is an “unfortunate side of these tragedies” and pinned the action on insurance companies and other so-called stakeholders.

“This wouldn’t be something that we as a family would even consider,” Truth Aquatics said. “The timing is on them. Our hearts and minds are on the tragedy and finding answers.”

Five crew members jumped overboard after trying to rescue the 33 scuba divers and one crew member whose escape routes were blocked by fire, federal authorities and the boat’s owner said.

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Attendees hug during a vigil (Mark J Terrill/AP)

The crew, including the captain, said they were driven back by flames, smoke and heat.

They jumped from the bridge area to the main deck – one breaking a leg in the process – and tried to get through the double doors of the galley, which were on fire.

That cut off both escape routes from the sleeping quarters: a stairway and an escape hatch that exited in the galley area.

The crew then tried, but failed, to get into windows at the front of the vessel.

Captain Jerry Boylan stayed aboard trying to send radio distress calls and was the last one in the water, said Glen Fritzler, co-owner of Truth Aquatics.

“The other crew at a certain point when the flames had engulfed the boat and they were in the water, they could see Jerry jump from the upper deck, a long jump. And there was a trail of smoke following him. They thought he was on fire,” M Fritzler told KEYT-TV in Santa Barbara.

“Within minutes, they would’ve been consumed,” he said. “So they did their best. They did re-enter the vessel from the back of the boat after they swam around it. They could not get to firefighting equipment because everything was engulfed.”

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