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NTSB says there will be a lengthy investigation into cause of deadly California boat fire

33 bodies recovered from Calif. boat fire

Santa Barbara, California — The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said Wednesday that the agency will be releasing a preliminary report in 10 days about the cause of a scuba diving boat fire off Southern California that killed an estimated 34 people, but it will not include a cause of the fire.  Bodies of 33 victims have been recovered and one was still missing Wednesday, authorities said.

NTSB's Jennifer Homendy said they had interviewed the owner, captain and deckhand as well as a second captain. She said they want to interview the first galley, the owners of the Samaritan boat that helped the crew members who escaped the fire, first responders and current and past employees.

Homendy said it will be a "very lengthy, detailed, comprehensive investigation" and four of the five surviving crew members underwent alcohol testing, with one not tested because he was being transferred, and all five were drug tested. The alcohol tests were all negative, and they are awaiting the drug results, she explained. 

There are teams touring the wreckage, which Homendy said is currently submerged by 60-65 feet of water and is inverted. She said they are documenting the wreckage using side scan sonar, which is used to provide images of the sea floor. She said they are hopeful it will be raised soon. 

"This was a horrific tragedy," Homendy said. She said the families who had lost loved ones are "devastated."

NTSB expects long investigation into deadly California boat fire

The new count of confirmed deaths came after officials recovered 13 bodies Tuesday, said Coast Guard Lieutenant Zach Farrell, a spokesman for the inter-agency joint information center in Santa Barbara representing local, county, state and federal officials involved in the case. Homendy said the victims will be identified by the medical examiner. 

Authorities had previously said 34 people were presumed dead after Monday's pre-dawn fire engulfed the boat named Conception as the victims slept below decks near the island of Santa Cruz during a three-day scuba diving excursion.

Five crew members, including the captain, managed to escape. The vessel eventually sank and overturned, making the recovery of bodies challenging.

The victims identified so far include high school students, a science teacher and his daughter, a marine biologist and a family of five celebrating a birthday. Domenic Selga told CBS News his mother, step-father and three step-sisters were among the victims.

"They were down there in those small bunks, those really small bunks ... to have no escape ... It was something that was playing in my head," Selga said. "It was just a complete nightmare."

A diving vessel burns off the coast of Southern California on September 2, 2019.
A diving vessel burns off the coast of Southern California on September 2, 2019. Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Cherie McDonough said her 25-year-old daughter was also onboard.

"Never thought I would have to go through this," she said. "She was just following her dreams. She loved it here and she loved the boat. She loved diving."

Officials have said the captain and four other crew members who survived jumped off the front of the vessel, swam to an inflatable boat at its stern and steered it to a ship anchored nearby. But flames moved so quickly through the 75-foot vessel that it blocked a narrow stairway and an escape hatch leading to the upper decks, giving those below virtually no chance of escaping, authorities said.

DNA will be needed to identify all the victims.

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