By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Divers on Wednesday recovered the remains of the final victim of a California dive boat fire that killed 34 people, as the U.S. Coast Guard issued a safety bulletin focusing on emergency escape routes, crew training and the charging of lithium-ion batteries.
The 75-foot (23-meter) Conception erupted in flames at about 3:15 a.m. on Sept. 2 and sank off Santa Cruz Island. Only five crew members escaped. Recovery of the final body had been delayed by weather conditions that complicated dive operations.
“The Conception Incident Unified Command is relieved to report that search and recovery efforts today were successful in locating the last missing victim,” The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office said on Twitter.
“DNA testing is still being conducted to confirm identities of 7 of the 34 victims recovered,” the sheriff’s office said.
The Coast Guard did not identify a cause of the fire in its safety bulletin, and the incident remains under investigation by multiple local and federal law enforcement agencies.
But the document suggests that investigators may be looking into the possibility that the fire was ignited by passengers charging electronic devices in the below-decks sleeping quarters and could not escape once flames were raging in the cramped space.
“A Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation (MBI) has been convened and will conduct a thorough and comprehensive marine casualty investigation to determine the causal factors that contributed to this tragic incident,” the bulletin states.
It adds: “The Coast Guard and the maritime industry do not have to delay until the MBI has completed their investigation before taking immediate and positive action.
Five crew members who were above deck when the fire broke out survived by leaping overboard, telling investigators the fierce blaze made it impossible to rescue the passengers. The victims are believed to have died of smoke inhalation.
The Coast Guard bulletin recommends that vessel owners “immediately” review crew training, make sure emergency escape routes are clearly identified and unobstructed and that required fire-fighting and life-saving equipment are on board.
The document also urges crews to “reduce potential fire hazards and consider limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords.”
The Los Angeles Times has reported that investigators had identified possible safety lapses on the Conception, including the lack of a night watchman and failure to properly train the crew for emergencies.
Truth Aquatics has filed a petition in federal court in Los Angeles seeking to avoid liability by invoking a 19th-century law that has been used in such disasters as the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Sandra Maler)