LOS ANGELES — Crew members on a dive boat say they were never instructed on emergency procedures before a predawn fire swept through the vessel as it was anchored off the South California coast, killing 34 people as they slept below deck, according to federal documents released Wednesday.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators say the cause of the blaze aboard the Conception remains undetermined but a possible ignition point was phones and other electronics plugged into outlets. One crew member told investigators he saw sparks flash when he plugged in his cellphone hours before the fire.
The boat was carrying 33 passengers on a Labor Day weekend scuba diving expedition last year. The fire broke out on the trip’s final night as the Conception was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, about 25 miles south of Santa Barbara, the boat’s home port.
All of the passengers and one crew member sleeping below deck were killed. The other five crew members, including Capt. Jerry Boylan, survived. They barely escaped after trying in vain to save the others, authorities said. Boylan made a mayday call at 3:14 a.m., saying, “I can’t breathe,” before abandoning ship.
Boylan could face federal manslaughter counts, and recent court documents say criminal charges are imminent. The NTSB has said all six crew members were asleep when the fire broke out, a violation of Coast Guard regulations that require a roving watch.
Hundreds of pages of documents released by the safety board provide a detailed look at the boat’s final hours on Sept. 2, 2019. The five-person NTSB will hold an Oct. 20 meeting to vote on the investigation’s findings, as well as the blaze’s probable cause and any potential recommendations.
Ryan Sims, who had only been working aboard the boat for three weeks, told investigators he had asked the captain to discuss emergency plans the day before the fire. Boylan reportedly told him: “When we have time.”
“I didn’t know what the procedures were supposed to be,” Sims said. Other crew members also said they were not familiar with safety procedures.
Sims told investigators he went to sleep after seeing sparks when he plugged in his cellphone, and there is no indication in the documents that he reported what he saw.
Sims, who broke his leg trying to escape the burning boat, has sued the vessel’s owners and the company that chartered it, alleging that the Conception wasn’t seaworthy and operated in an unsafe manner.
Families of 32 of the victims and another surviving crew member have filed claims against the boat owners, Glen and Dana Fritzler, and the boat company, Truth Aquatics. In turn, the Fritzlers and the company have filed a legal claim to shield them from damages under a maritime law that limits liability for vessel owners. Court filings show they have offered to settle lawsuits with dozens of victims’ relatives.
Attorneys for Sims, Boylan and the Fritzlers did not immediately return requests for comment. A spokesman for the US attorney’s office in Los Angeles that is investigating the case declined to comment.