LOS ANGELES: Federal authorities are conducting a criminal investigation into the fire on a California dive boat that killed 34 people in one of the state's worst maritime disasters, a law enforcement source said on Monday (Sep 9).
That investigation is proceeding as divers postponed for another day efforts to raise the 75-foot Conception from the ocean floor, citing weather conditions. They hope to find the remains of the final victim inside the charred wreckage of the ship.
"We are conducting a joint investigation. No criminal charges have been filed at this time," the source told Reuters.
Agents from the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the US Coast Guard and local sheriff's deputies served search warrants at the offices of the boat's owner and two other ships belonging to the company.
The Conception, owned by California-based Truth Aquatics, erupted in flames at about 3.15am on Sep 2, killing 33 passengers and a crew member sleeping below decks as it sank off Santa Cruz Island.
The five surviving crew members were above deck when the fire erupted and have told investigators that the intense flames made it impossible to enter the sleeping quarters. The victims are believed to have died of smoke inhalation.
A coroner's pathologist was "convinced" the victims died due to smoke inhalation, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said, but his analysis was considered preliminary pending toxicology tests.
Law enforcement officials declined to say what they were seeking during those searches. One of the other ships, the Vision, is said to closely resemble the Conception.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the investigation was focused on possible safety lapses aboard the Conception, including the lack of a night watchman and failure to properly train the crew for such emergencies.
Crew members have told investigators they did not hear smoke alarms before awakening to discover flames erupting from below decks, National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy has said.
READ: Crew told of 'harrowing' California boat fire believed to have killed 34, including 2 Singaporeans
The coroner's office has identified 18 of the recovered bodies and officials released the names of nine victims, saying the rest awaited notifications of next of kin, who have been asked to provide DNA samples.
A crew member who perished in the accident was identified on Friday as 26-year-old Alexandra Kurtz.
The eight deceased passengers whose names were released were: Raymond "Scott" Chan, 59; Justin Carroll Dignam, 58; Daniel Garcia, 46; Marybeth Guiney, 51; Yulia Krashennaya, 40; Caroline McLaughlin, 35; Ted Strom, 62; and Tan Wei, 26.
Truth Aquatics filed a petition in federal court in Los Angeles last week seeking to avoid liability by invoking a 19th-century law that has been used in such disasters as the 1912 sinking of the Titanic.
That action appears to be pre-emptive as no lawsuits have yet been filed against Truth Aquatics over the accident.