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California boat fire: Investigators serve search warrants on Conception owner

Los Angeles Times logo Los Angeles Times 9/8/2019 Richard Winton

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Federal investigators served search warrants Sunday at the company that operated the Conception dive boat, on which 34 people were killed last week in a fire that swept through the vessel while it was anchored off Santa Cruz Island on Labor Day.

Agents with the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the U.S. Coast Guard served the warrants shortly after 8 a.m. at the Santa Barbara headquarters of Truth Aquatics, law enforcement officials said. Investigators were looking for training, safety and maintenance records.

The move comes amid an intensifying investigation into the worst maritime disaster in modern California history.

Law enforcement sources told The Times last week that a preliminary investigation into the Conception boat fire has suggested serious safety deficiencies aboard the vessel, including the lack of a "roaming night watchman" who is required to be awake and alert passengers in the event of a fire or other dangers.

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The probe also has raised questions about whether the crew was adequately trained and whether passengers received a complete safety briefing, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not have approval to comment publicly about the case.

The fire broke out early Monday morning during a Labor Day weekend diving expedition, trapping the victims, who were sleeping. Five crew members who were above deck at the time were able to escape and said the fire was too intense to get anyone else out.

Authorities have not suggested the fire and fatalities were the result of any criminal wrongdoing, but prosecutors from the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles were at the scene on Thursday preparing to assist investigators and keep tabs on the unfolding inquiry.

A federal law dubbed "seaman's manslaughter" was used last year in Missouri by federal prosecutors to charge a duck boat captain and two others in connection with the loss of 17 lives when the amphibious craft capsized in a storm.

In that case, it was Coast Guard investigators who built the case for criminal negligence. The captain is accused of failing to assess the weather, steer the vessel appropriately and prepare the passengers for abandoning ship.

a small boat in a large body of water: A drone photo shows the 75-foot Conception on May 3. © Courtesy of Don Barthelmess A drone photo shows the 75-foot Conception on May 3. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, who is also the coroner, said a pathologist determined traditional autopsies would not be conducted on the victims.

"Our pathologist is convinced the victims were victims of smoke inhalation," he said. "It will likely be the cause of death."

Brown said he consulted with local, state and federal authorities before making the decision to not conduct autopsies. External examination and toxicology samples were taken from each victim, he said.

The final ruling on the causes of death will not come until a formal cause of the fire is established, he added.

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