By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A dive boat that caught fire and sank off the California coast, killing 34 people, had no night watchman on duty, as required, when the flames erupted, federal safety officials said on Thursday in a preliminary report.
All six crew members aboard the 75-foot (23-metre) Conception were asleep, five in berths behind the wheelhouse and the sixth in a below-decks bunk room, when the blaze broke out at about 3:15 a.m. on Labor Day, the National Transportation Safety Board wrote in its two-page report.
Previously, a U.S. Coast Guard captain said the Conception was required by a safety certificate to assign such a night watchman or "rover."
The five surviving crew members told investigators that by the time they became aware of the flames it was too late to save passengers and the sixth crew member who had been sleeping below decks.
Federal authorities are conducting a criminal investigation. Truth Aquatics, the company that owns the boat, has sought to avoid liability by invoking a 19th-century law that has shielded vessel owners from costly disasters such as the sinking of the Titanic. That move has been criticized as lacking in compassion for the victims and their families.
Divers raised the boat Thursday afternoon from 60 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean off Santa Cruz Island. That delicate operation had been delayed due to weather conditions.
Investigators were still trying to determine the cause of the conflagration, considered one of California's worst maritime disasters, the NTSB report said, adding that the crew was not aware of any mechanical or electrical issues with the vessel.
The Coast Guard on Wednesday issued a safety bulletin urging boat owners and captains to consider limiting use of lithium-ion batteries and chargers on board and to review escape routes and crew training.
The document suggests investigators are looking into the possibility that the fire was ignited by lithium devices or chargers in sleeping quarters and that passengers could not escape once flames were raging in the dark, cramped space.
The last body was recovered on Wednesday and local coroner's investigators said they were using DNA testing to confirm the identities of seven victims. Sheriff's deputies and FBI agents have searched offices and two other ships belonging to the Conception's owners, Santa Barbara-based dive company Truth Aquatics.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Sandra Maler and David Gregorio)