Passengers and crew on a scuba diving boat that caught fire off Santa Barbara over the Labor Day weekend may not have had any means of escape because the staircases leading up from the sleeping quarters below decks ended in the same enclosed space, not an open deck, investigators believe.
Two days after the inferno aboard the Conception, which historians said was California's worst maritime disaster in more than 150 years, rescue workers reported the recovery of 33 of the 34 victims' bodies. They were planning to use DNA analysis to identify the dead, many of whom were charred beyond recognition.
The fire broke out around 3am on Monday morning and spread so fast that the captain and four other crew members on deck had no chance to pull anyone else to safety and ended up jumping off the vessel as it became engulfed in flames. In a harrowing Mayday call to the coast guard, one of the crew said: "I can't breathe."
The dispatcher asked of the others below deck: "Are they locked inside the boat?" In the recording released to the public, the answer to this question is inaudible.
The FBI's Evidence Response Team has collected evidence both from the charred remains of the diving boat, which was docked a few yards off Santa Cruz Island, 25 miles south of Santa Barbara, and from its intact sister vessel, Vision, which was harbored in Santa Barbara.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is expected to issue preliminary findings on the causes of the fire within 10 days, pending a full report that could take as long as two years.
Preliminary reports suggest that there were no locks preventing the 33 passengers and single crew member trapped below decks from coming up. Rather, the problem was that the two exits required by law both led to a galley area that was consumed by flames and blocked any possible escape.
The Conception's operator, Truth Aquatics, has a good reputation and the coast guard has reported that the boat passed all its most recent inspections, which meant it was fitted with fire extinguishers and with a fire suppression system in its engine room.
One former NTSB officialpointed at inadequate safety rules for boat construction. "It appears that both exits from the sleeping quarters bring you up inside the vessel," the former head of the NTSB's Office of Marine Safety, Marjorie Murtagh Cooke, told the Los Angeles Times.
"With 30-plus people dying, the investigation could lead to changes in the way vessels are designed or protected."
Those aboard the Conception were largely families and diving enthusiasts who relished the chance to explore Santa Cruz Island, an uninhabited environmental treasure in the Pacific Ocean. The victims included a father, stepmother and three daughters from Stockton in northern California.
Santa Barbara county sheriff's lieutenant Brian Olmstead told reporters, that three dozen divers had been out looking for bodies around the clock since the disaster, spending long hours in the cold water and returning "emotionally drained".
"Our priority," he said, "is trying to find the last victim."
• This article was amended on 4 and 5 September 2019 to clarify that the incident is California's worst maritime disaster in recent history, and because an earlier version referred to Brian Olmstead as the sheriff of Santa Barbara county, when he is a lieutenant in the sheriff's office. This has been corrected.