The 75' Conception, based in Santa Barbara Harbor, caught fire early 9/2 while anchored off Santa Cruz Island, multiple agencies responded. 5 people were rescued and 34 are missing.
Deadly fire sinks dive boat off California coast
01:09 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

The fire that caused the deadly Conception dive boat disaster last year might have been sparked by cell phones and batteries left charging overnight – a tragedy that federal safety investigators said on Tuesday could have been prevented by a night watchman.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said that while it is not possible to definitively determine the cause of the Conception fire off the coast of California, which killed 34 people, witness accounts and the “propensity of lithium ion batteries to overheat” suggest that as the likely cause.

CNN previously reported that a witness account had noted that a crew member recalled seeing sparks when plugging in his cell phone before bed.

The NTSB also faulted the boat’s operator for not requiring a crew member to patrol the craft as an overnight watchman, as required by the boat’s license and Coast Guard regulations.

“Had a crew member been awake, and patrolling the 75-foot-long Conception on the morning of the fire, it is likely that he or she would likely have discovered the fire at an early stage allowing time to fight the fire and give warning to passengers and crew to evacuate,” said Andrew Ehlers, who oversaw one portion of the investigation.

This photo, released by the NTSB, was taken during the fatal voyage and shows devices plugged in to charge aboard the Conception.

He said investigators believed the “absence of the required roving patrol on the Conception delayed detection and allowed for growth of fire, precluded firefighting and evacuation efforts, and directly led to the high number of fatalities in the accident.”

The NTSB pointed out that 11 months before the Labor Day 2019 tragedy, a battery fire had broken out on another ship run by the company.

“We’ve seen repeated evidence of violations with this company,” Sumwalt said.

An attorney for the boat’s owner, Truth Aquatics, did not immediately respond to requests for comment from CNN.

Attorney Douglas Schwartz said in a statement on behalf of Truth Aquatics last September that a crew member had checked the area where the fire was believed to have been concentrated soon before it ignited, but the attorney did not point to any evidence the crew member had remained awake.

“We do have witness testimony that seems to contradict the notion that the entire crew was asleep,” Schwartz said in the statement. “We do know that one crewmember checked on and around the galley area at around 2:30 a.m., approximately 30 minutes before the fire broke out.”

The statement added that the company believed the fire “was not caused by the operator, the boat or the crew, who acted heroically and did all in their power to try and save the lives of the passengers and their fellow crew member.”

The board on Tuesday also faulted Coast Guard regulations and inspections as inadequate. The board makes recommendations but does not have the authority to require they be followed. It said that if past recommendations had been implemented, the tragedy might have been avoided.

For example, Conception had the required emergency exit hatch from the below-deck sleeper cabin, but board member Jennifer Homendy pointed out that escaping through the hatch required climbing up a ladder and twisting through a small space above a bunk bed – a complicated maneuver for even a small person to perform in the dark.

Investigators said they believe that most of the 33 passengers in the bunk room had been awake and trying to escape. Some, they said, were wearing their shoes when their bodies were found.

Sumwalt told CNN last year that the Conception tragedy was the deadliest marine accident in nearly 70 years and “the most deadly transportation accident that we’ve seen in a decade.”

He also noted at the time that “part of the certificate for this vessel required that there be constantly a roving watch person to keep an eye on the safety of the vessel” but that “the interviews, to this point, have indicated that the five surviving crew members were in fact asleep at the time that the fire broke out.”

He said investigators had no way of knowing whether an additional crew member and any of the passengers, who were all below deck and died, had been awake.

CNN’s Rene Marsh and Devan Cole contributed to this report.