September 12, 2019 / 6:25 PM / 6 days ago

Charred wreckage of California dive boat raised from ocean floor

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A dive boat that caught fire and sank off the California coast, killing 34 people, was raised from the ocean floor on Thursday as federal safety officials said the crew had no night watchman on duty, as required, when the flames erupted.

FILE PHOTO: Ventura County Fire Department personnel respond to a boat fire on a 75-foot (23-meter) vessel off Santa Cruz Island, California, U.S. September 2, 2019. Ventura County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS.

Television images showed the blackened, burned out hulk of the 75-foot (23-meter) Conception as it was hoisted to the surface near Santa Cruz Island, to be loaded onto a barge and taken to an undisclosed location as part of a federal investigation into the accident.

The ship burst into flames at about 3:15 a.m. on Labor Day, killing 33 passengers and a crew member who had been sleeping below decks. Santa Barbara county officials say the victims were all believed to have died of smoke inhalation.

The final body was recovered on Wednesday and Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said on Thursday that all 34 victims had been identified.

The Conception’s six crew members were asleep, five in berths behind the wheelhouse and the sixth in the below-decks bunk room, when the blaze broke out, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a preliminary report into the incident.

Previously, a U.S. Coast Guard captain said the boat was required by its safety certificate to assign such a night watchman or “rover.”

CRIMINAL PROBE

The five surviving crew members have told investigators that by the time they became aware of the flames it was too late to save passengers and the sixth crew member, 26-year-old Alexandra Kurtz.

Federal authorities conducting a criminal investigation have searched offices and two other ships belonging to the owner of the Conception, Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics.

Investigators have not yet determined the cause of the conflagration, one of California’s worst maritime disasters, the NTSB report said, adding the crew was not aware of any mechanical or electrical issues with the vessel.

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

The document suggests 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.

Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Sandra Maler, David Gregorio and Lincoln Feast.

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