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NTSB: Crew members described 'harrowing story' of Conception boat fire

US Coast Guard respond to boat fire; rescue efforts underway
Posted at 3:53 PM, Sep 05, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-05 22:06:13-04

At a press conference Thursday afternoon, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Member Jennifer Homendy described the "harrowing story of the moments before the fire erupted" on the Conception dive boat.

Thirty-four people were killed when the boat caught fire and sank off Santa Cruz Island early Monday morning. The bodies of all but one of the victims have been recovered.

Five crew members survived and NTSB investigators began interviewing them on Wednesday.

Homendy said the crew members have been very cooperative.

She said one crew member reported that he awoke to a noise, left his bunk in the wheel house and saw flames erupting from the galley area. Homendy said he tried to get down a ladder but flames had engulfed the ladder, so the crew members on the bridge were forced to jump down to the deck below. One of them broke a leg.

Homendy said the crew members recalled trying to access the double doors of the galley to reach the passengers below but that area was also engulfed in flames. They then tried to get in through the window at the front of the vessel but were unsuccessful.

At that point, due to heat, flames and smoke, Homendy said they jumped from the boat. Two of the crew members reportedly swam to the back of the vessel to retrieve the skiff. All of the crew members took the skiff to a nearby vessel and called 911. Homendy said at least one of the crew members took the skiff back to the Conception to try to rescue any survivors but no one else was found alive.

NTSB investigators are expected to remain on scene for at least another week.

When asked about reports theorizing that a lithium battery or charging cell phones and cameras could have started the fire, Homendy said they are not ruling out any possible ignition sources, including the electrical system and wiring.

Homendy said investigators are now focusing on a plan to remove the boat from the bottom of the ocean. She said the weather could be a factor in those plans as strong winds could make it difficult to raise the vessel and it's important to the investigation that the boat remains intact.

The owner of the Conception has reportedly contracted Global Diving and Salvage to conduct the salvage operation. The derrick barge Salta Verde, which will be used in the operation, arrived in the area on Wednesday. According to the Joint Information Center, once the boat is removed from the water and transferred to the barge, it will be moved to a secure location.

Crews will work with the National Park Service, NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, and the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response to mitigate any environmental concerns during the salvage operation.

DB Salta Verde arrives to salvage the wreckage of the Conception dive boat

A preliminary report on the boat fire investigation should be released within ten days of the accident with a final report in about 18 months.

Homendy thanked the community for their help with the investigation. She said investigators had received an overwhelming response from the public with photos, videos and tips.

The community is invited to participate in a public vigil for the victims at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara at 6:30 p.m. on Friday.