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Santa Barbara dive boat owners file lawsuit to limit liability in deadly fire

Attorneys for the Conception dive boat owners have filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court to limit liability in the Monday fire and sinking that killed 34 people off the coast of Santa Barbara County.

The Conception was anchored near Santa Cruz Island on the last day of a scuba diving trip when it caught fire and later sunk, killing 33 passengers and a crew member who were in the below-deck bunk area.

Five surviving crew members told investigators they tried to help the passengers, but the fire was too intense. They used the skiff on the back of the vessel to reach a nearby boat.

A massive search and rescue effort turned into a recovery effort Tuesday, and 33 of the 34 bodies had been found as of Friday.

Truth Aquatics, owned by Glen and Dana Fritzler, owns and operates Conception and other similar vessels, the Truth and the Vision, out of Sea Landing at the Santa Barbara Harbor.

Attorney Russell Brown filed an amended complaint Thursday for exoneration from or limitation of liability, citing 46 U.S. Code Section 305, which limits liability for seagoing vessels for personal injury or death.

Thirty-nine people were on the Conception at the time of the fire, and while none of the survivors or victims’ families had filed suit as of Thursday, one or more have submitted notice that they may bring a suit for alleged injuries, property damage, or death from the fire, according to the court complaint.

“At all relevant times, plaintiffs used reasonable care to make the Conception seaworthy, and she was, at all relevant times, tight, staunch, and strong, fully and properly manned, equipped and supplied and in all respects seaworthy and fit for the service in which she was engaged,” the document claims.

The Fritzlers ask the court to exonerate them from liability or limit their liability.

The Conception wreckage is on the sea floor in Platts Harbor, on the mainland side of Santa Cruz Island.

Investigators plan to salvage it and take it to a secure location as part of the inquiry into the cause of the fire and adequacy of the vessel’s safety systems

“The fire and all consequential alleged injuries, damages and deaths occurred without the privity or knowledge on the part of plaintiffs, and was not caused or contributed to by any negligence, fault or knowledge on the part of the plaintiffs, or anyone for whom the plaintiffs may be responsible, at or prior to the commencement of the above-described voyage.”

According to the Truth Aquatics website, Roy Hauser started the company in 1974, and designed and built Truth as the first California liveaboard diving boat.

Glen Fritzler partnered with Hauser in 1979 and became the owner and operator after Hauser’s retirement.

Noozhawk.com managing editor Giana Magnoli wrote this report and can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com. Read the Santa Barbara-based news site’s version of the story here.

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