Lack of Night Patrol Delayed Detection of Deadly Boat Fire, U.S. Says

The lack of a required night patrol aboard a scuba dive boat delayed the response to a fire that killed 34 people last year, the National Transportation Safety Board said on Tuesday.

The delay allowed the fire to grow unnoticed and “directly led to the high number of fatalities,” the board said.

A lack of smoke detectors in the lounge where the fire most likely broke out, as well as an escape hatch in the bunk rooms that directed escapees into the lounge, which was on fire, were also found to have contributed to the delay and extreme loss of life.

The fire, which began early on Labor Day 2019, overtook the boat, named the Conception, off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., while its six crew members and 33 passengers were asleep.

Five crew members escaped the fire, jumping overboard and pleading for help from a nearby fishing boat. Some who tried unsuccessfully to escape were thought to have been awakened during the fire, as shoes were found on their bodies.

The board’s five members — who convened via video conference — voted unanimously that the probable cause of the accident was the failure of the boat’s owner, Truth Aquatics Inc., to provide “effective oversight of its vessel and crew member operations, including requirements to ensure that a roving patrol was maintained.”

The specific cause of the fire itself could not be determined, though investigators said it could have been caused by unattended batteries that were charging, the ship’s electrical components or smoking materials. Efforts to find what had sparked the fire were stymied by the destruction caused by the fire and subsequent sinking of the ship.

“At the end of the day, there’s one person in charge of safety,” said Jennifer Homendy, an N.T.S.B. member. “That was the owner of these vessels and the owner of the company.”

An employee of Truth Aquatics Inc. referred a request for comment to the company’s owner, Glen Fritzler, who did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

The N.T.S.B. recommended on Monday that the U.S. Coast Guard should require smoke detectors in all accommodations aboard vessels. The Coast Guard did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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