The investigation into Monday’s horrific fire aboard a dive boat in California’s Channel Islands could ultimately result in criminal charges.
For now, authorities in Southern California view the Conception disaster as a tragic accident. But under federal statute, prosecutors could pursue criminal charges against the captain if the multi-agency probe ultimately determines that misconduct, negligence or inattention to duty caused the deaths of 34 people who became trapped in a sleeping cabin below deck during the catastrophe.
According to the Associated Press, federal law also allows criminal charges against any boat owner or charterer who engages in “fraud, neglect, connivance, misconduct, or violation of law” that results in a death.
Captain, 4 Crew Members Survived Channel Islands Dive Boat Fire
Just five crew members, including the Conception’s captain, survived the Channel Islands dive boat fire. They were sleeping on a higher deck and managed to flee the burning ship in a dinghy before being rescued by a nearby private fishing boat.
Sadly, all 33 passengers aboard the Conception for a three-day diving excursion perished in the fire, along with one crew member.
According to the surviving crew, attempts were made to reach those below deck, but the flames were simply too intense. While two crew members eventually returned to the water to search for other survivors, the effort came too late to save anyone else.
Although ship captains can be criminally charged if no attempts are made to save others aboard a stricken vessel, that’s not the case when nothing can be done.
“The notion of the captain always goes down with the ship is consistent with that only because the captain is expected to stay there and do something if that’s going to help,” one maritime law expert told the Associated Press. “The idea that the captain is actually supposed to die along with everyone else is not any kind of a legal requirement.”
Conception Fire Investigation Reportedly Uncovered Serious Safety Lapses
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is leading the investigation into the Channel Islands dive boat fire. However, the U.S. Coast Guard, prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, and the Santa Barbara County district attorney’s office are also taking part in the probe.
Since Tuesday, NTSB investigators have toured a sister ship to the Conception with a similar layout and interviewed the boat’s captain, along with the crew. Those interviews suggested the fire started in the galley and quickly blocked the door to the passenger sleeping cabin, as well as an emergency hatch located over a bunk bed. Cell phones and cameras were apparently charging in the galley overnight, leading some to hypothesize that a lithium battery could have sparked the blaze.
After touring the Conception’s sister ship, NTSB investigator Jennifer Homendy suggested darkness, cramped quarters, and the location and size of the hatch may have hindered the passengers’ attempts to escape.
According to The Los Angeles Times, a source familiar with the investigation indicated that the Conception suffered from serious safety lapses, including the lack of a mandatory “roaming night monitor” responsible for alerting passengers to fire and other dangers. So far, investigators have not confirmed the report.
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