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Family of sole crew member who died in California boat fire sues dive boat operator

New details emerge in CA dive boat fire

The family of the lone crew member to die in a boat fire that killed all 33 passengers off the Southern California coast last year sued the vessel's owners Monday in federal court. The lawsuit claims the owners of the Conception knew the boat was unseaworthy and that it lacked required smoke detectors, fire equipment and adequate emergency exits.

Alexandra "Allie" Kurtz, 26, an Illinois native living in California, was a new crew member at the time of the fire. She was the only crew member sleeping with the passengers in the berth below deck when the fire broke out in the middle of the night on Labor Day. At the time, the boat was anchored near an island off Santa Barbara.

"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," Domenic Selga, whose mother, stepfather, and three stepsisters all died in the fire, told CBS News. "It was just a complete nightmare."  

Lawsuits were also filed on behalf of three of the passengers who died: Yulia Krashennaya of Berkeley and Dr. Sanjeeri Deopujari and her husband, Kaustbh Nirmal, of Norwalk, Connecticut.

"Their families have asked us to do two things," attorney Robert Mongeluzzi said at a news conference in Los Angeles. "To find out what happened and to make sure it never happens again."

The cause of the blaze remains under investigation by federal prosecutors, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard.

The suit is the latest to counter a claim filed by the boat company, Truth Aquatics Inc., to shield the owners from damages under a pre-Civil War maritime law that limits the liability of vessel owners. Before the lawsuits can move forward, family members will have to show that the boat's owners, who were on shore, should have known the boat was unsafe.

Mongeluzzi said it appears likely that the fire broke out in the galley where lithium-ion batteries, which are known to be a fire hazard, were being charged for cameras, phones and powerful strobe lights used for diving at night. Mongeluzzi and attorney Jeffrey Goodman cited news reports of a fire that broke out on the boat's sister vessel, Vision, where a cell phone began smoldering and was tossed overboard before it could cause any damage.

The only survivors of the Conception were the captain and four other crew members, who were all asleep above deck. They said they awoke to find the boat engulfed in flames and were unable to reach the sleeping passengers or Kurtz, and had to jump in the water to save their own lives.

"They tried to enter through the double doors and couldn't get in because of the flames. They tried to access the galley from the front, through the windows, but the windows wouldn't open and at some point, because of heat and smoke and fire, they had jumped from the boat," NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy told CBS News

"The flames, and knowing that there are people on board that cannot get out — you can only imagine the horror that they were going through," said Bob Hansen, who helped pull the five survivors out of the water and onto his boat.

Authorities are looking into whether the boat had a night watchman on duty, as required under Coast Guard rules. A preliminary NTSB report found that all six crew members were asleep when the fire broke out.

Surviving crew members told the NTSB the boat's smoke alarms never went off. One crew member, who broke his leg trying to escape, has also sued the boat owners along with the wife and teenage children of a man who died below deck.

Boat owners Glen and Dana Fritzler have said in court papers that they "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."

Glen also defended the crew members of the Conception shortly after the fire, saying they tried to save the other passengers, and claimed the captain stayed until the last possible moment.

"They said that they could see [the captain] jump from the upper deck and that there was a trail of smoke following him. They thought he was on fire," he said.

Coast Guard records show the boat had passed its two most recent safety inspections without violations.

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