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Crew tried to reach passengers as flames engulfed dive boat, NTSB says

An NTSB official recounted the crew’s harrowing efforts to save passengers from flames engulfing the doomed Conception dive boat, as theories began to emerge about how the fire started.

“We are not ruling out any possible ignition sources,” National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy said in a Thursday afternoon news conference, adding that there “may have been a lot of cameras and cell phones that were charging on this vessel.”

Homendy added that the NTSB is “focused on everything, including the electrical system and wiring.”

One crew member told rescuer Shirley Hansen that he thought the fire may have sparked from a phone and camera charging station in the galley, the Los Angeles Times reported. Roy Hauser, who designed the Conception, also told the Times that a lithium battery charger may have started the blaze.

“This happened in the belly of the boat,” Hauser told the newspaper. “Those people did not have a chance to get out: From stem to stern, that boat was burning.”

The fire killed 34 people, with 33 bodies recovered so far.

On Thursday, dive teams at the site continued to search for the one missing person. Crews are using remote-operated vehicles and sonar to assist in the search, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release.

Efforts to salvage the burned-out hull of the Conception also began Thursday with the arrival of a crane barge that will lift the boat out of the water and move it to a secure location for further investigation.

No way to get to the bunk room

Homendy, who is leading the NTSB’s investigation, said that officials have conducted interviews with the Conception’s owner and operator, as well as some of the crew members.

One of the crew members told authorities he woke up when he heard a noise and left his bunk, Homendy said.

“He saw flames erupting from the galley area. He tried to get down a ladder and flames engulfed the ladder,” Homendy said. The crew reportedly jumped down to the main deck and tried to get into the double doors of the galley so they could rescue passengers, but the doors were engulfed in flames.

Then they tried to get in through the windows in the front part of the boat, but couldn’t, Homendy said.

“They saw the flames, they knew the passengers were in the bunk room, so their efforts were to try to get to them and they could not get through the windows,” Homendy said.

The crew jumped from the boat, and two crew members reportedly swam to the back of the boat to get the dinghy, Homendy said. They traveled to the nearby boat Grape Escape, and then some of the members went back to the Conception to look for survivors.

The crew member who woke up and saw the flames told authorities that he did not hear the smoke alarm, Homendy said.

NTSB investigator Adam Tucker said at the news conference that those smoke detectors weren’t required to be wired to the wheelhouse.

Homendy also noted that the boat should have had one crew member awake overnight and on the lookout for danger, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“There is a requirement in their certificate to have a night watchman,” she said.

Homendy said that the agency usually issues a preliminary report within about 10 days, but a final report could take more than a year to compile.

33 bodies recovered

On Wednesday, authorities announced that they had recovered the bodies of 33 victims, with one still missing and presumed dead.

Thirty-nine people were aboard the boat — 33 passengers and six crew members. Five crew members escaped and were the only people believed to have survived.

The remains of the victims were taken to the Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Office to begin the process of identifying the bodies, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Coast Guard Capt. Jason Neubauer said during a Wednesday news conference that four of the five surviving crew members have been tested for alcohol. Drug testing has also been conducted on all five crew members.

The results of the alcohol tests came back negative, and the drug test results are still pending, Homendy said Wednesday. She added that the one crew member who wasn’t tested for alcohol was being taken to the hospital at that time.

The Conception was owned by the Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics. A representative for Truth Aquatics confirmed to The Tribune on Wednesday that the company has canceled all upcoming dive trips out of respect for the victims. Information was not available regarding when the company plans to resume trips.

A public vigil is being planned for the victims, Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason said in a tweet. The vigil will be held at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Chase Palm Park, 323 E. Cabrillo Blvd. in Santa Barbara.

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