SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — The investigation into the boat fire that killed 34 people is expected to shift later this week to the burned out remains of the Conception, which officials hope can yield new clues.
Authorities have been planning to raise the boat from the Santa Barbara Channel for days, but those efforts have been repeatedly put off due to bad weather. Officials now expect the salvage process to begin Thursday or Friday.
Investigators have still not determined the cause of the worst maritime disaster in modern California history and believe being able to examine the boat could help locate an ignition source and answer why none of the victims were able to escape.
The fire broke out during a Labor Day weekend diving expedition, trapping the victims who were sleeping below deck. Five crew members who were above deck at the time were able to escape and said the fire was too intense to get anyone else out.
Federal investigators from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the U.S. Coast Guard have spent the past two days searching the Santa Barbara Harbor office of the Conception operator, Truth Aquatics. The FBI on Tuesday also asked to public for any information — including videos and photos — of the Conception.
Investigators also continued to examine and remove items from the Truth Aquatics Vision, a vessel similar to the Conception. FBI evidence experts carefully packaged up items in cardboard boxes while an ATF team scoured the boat’s systems.
Of the 34 victims, 33 bodies have been recovered. Officials hope raising the boat could help find the final victim.
Investigators have been looking into possible shortcomings in the way the Conception operated. Law enforcement sources told The Times last week that a preliminary investigation suggested serious safety deficiencies aboard the Conception. They said the vessel lacked a “roaming night watchman” who remains awake to alert passengers of fire or other danger; some of the surviving crew members told investigators they didn’t have adequate training to handle a major emergency; and passengers may not have received thorough safety briefings.
Throughout the operation, divers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department searched the wreckage for remains.
On the day of the fire, Air Rescue 5 dropped four divers into the water to assess the sunken vessel, said Sgt. David Carver. The dive unit has the experience and equipment to enter confined spaces underwater, Carver said.
The agency partnered with the Port of Los Angeles Police Department last week to search and recover remains, he said.