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NTSB: Crew Members Were Asleep When Conception Caught Fire

SANTA BARBARA (CBSLA/AP) – Federal investigators reported Thursday that all six crew members aboard the scuba diving boat that caught fire off the Santa Barbara coast, leaving 34 people dead, were sleeping when the blaze erupted in the middle of the night.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board's preliminary report, the six crew members were asleep when the blaze broke out at around 3:14 a.m. on Sept. 2 aboard the 75-foot charter boat Conception as it was anchored about 20 yards of Santa Cruz Island and 22 miles southwest of Santa Barbara.

34 Unaccounted For After Boat Fire Off Ventura Co. Coastline
"Conception," a charter dive boat, burns off Santa Cruz Island, near the coast of Ventura County. Sept. 2, 2019. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

Five of them were sleeping in the wheelhouse on the uppermost sun deck, and the sixth was asleep below in the lower hull's bunkroom with the passengers.

None of the crew members were awake on night watch, the NTSB said. The Conception's Certificate of Inspection, issued by the Coast Guard, requires a "roving patrol at all times" when passengers' bunks are occupied.

The NTSB's findings could aid federal authorities conducting a criminal investigation into the fire, who could bring charges under a statute known as seaman's manslaughter. The law was enacted during the 19th century to punish negligent captains, engineers and pilots for deadly steamboat accidents that killed thousands.

An attorney for Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics, the owner of the Conception, disputed federal investigators' claims.

Attorney Douglas Schwartz claims a crew member "checked on and around the galley area" around 2:30 a.m., which would be about 45 minutes before the fire erupted.

Schwartz refused to answer follow-up questions, including whether that crew member was assigned to night watch and went back to sleep after inspecting the galley.

According to the NTSB report, after the fire broke out, the five crew members in the wheelhouse jumped overboard and survived. The sixth crew member and the 33 passengers asleep below in their bunks were trapped and died.

Three crew members interviewed by the NTSB said that there were no mechanical or electrical issues reported. They also did not see a fire burning in the engine room.

The NTSB did not indicate a possible cause for the blaze. The full report is not expected for several months.

The Conception has three levels; the uppermost sun deck which contains the wheelhouse, the main deck which has a salon and galley, and the lower deck which has the bunk room and shower room.

One of the crew members in the wheelhouse was awakened by a noise and saw the fire burning on the aft end of the sun deck, with flames "rising from the salon compartment below," the NTSB reports.

At that point, the captain radioed a mayday call to the Coast Guard. The crew then tried to access the salon, but because they couldn't use the ladder, which was on fire, they had to jump down to the main deck. One of the crew members broke his leg in the process.

The crew members couldn't access the salon and galley because they were fully engulfed. The NTSB reports that they then jumped overboard, and the captain and two crew members swam around to the stern, reboarded the vessel and opened the hatch to the engine room, where they saw no fire.

The aft doors to the salon were blocked by fire, so the three launched a skiff, picked up the other two crew members and were rescued by a nearby Good Samaritan's boat, the Grape Escape.

The NTSB report came hours before crews raised the dive boat from the waters off the coast onto a salvage barge, where it was brought into port in Oxnard for further inspection. The U.S. Coast Guard is taking custody of the vessels as federal investigators continue their investigation.

The body of the last missing victim was found by divers Wednesday. Most of the victims were from the Bay Area in Northern California.

RELATED: Dive Boat Owner Seeks To Limit Payouts To Victims' Families Days After Fatal Fire

Conception was built in Long Beach and first launched in 1981. According to Truth Aquatics' website, Conception has a maximum capacity of 46 people. The charter was booked by a group called Worldwide Diving Adventures. Truth Aquatics has been running charters since 1974.

Conception dive boat fire Santa Barbara
The burned out wreckage of the"Conception" on Sept. 12, 2019, at Port Hueneme, Calif. The dive boat caught fire off the Santa Barbara coastline on Sept. 2 and sank, killing 34 people aboard. (CBS2)

The FBI, ATF and other agencies raided Truth Aquatics' offices in Santa Barbara a few days after the blaze.

In response to the deadly fire, the U.S. Coast Guard Wednesday issued new emergency safety requirements for boaters. They include recommending that boaters limit the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and the use of power strips and extension cords.

Along with the NTSB's own report, the Coast Guard announced Wednesday that it has convened a formal Marine Board of Investigation to determine the cause of the fire.

Click here to read the entire NTSB Preliminary Report.

(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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