California boat fire: Apple employees among those believed dead – The Mercury News

SANTA BARBARA — As the search continues for the final victim of one of the deadliest recreational boating disasters in state history, federal authorities have more questions than answers about what might have ignited the fire that consumed the Conception, killing 34 passengers and crew.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board spent their first full day probing the disaster, interviewing four of the five surviving crew members, meeting with victims’ families, and documenting the wreckage of the 75-foot vessel, which remains submerged, upside down, in more than 60 feet of water off Santa Cruz Island southwest of Santa Barbara.

NTSB Board Member Jennifer Homendy said her agency has already interviewed four of the five crew members, including the boat’s captain, who were able to escape the flaming vessel and find refuge with a couple at a nearby boat.

“I would describe those interviews as very cooperative,” Homendy said at a Wednesday news conference.

The four interviewed crew members also passed alcohol tests; a fifth crew member needed to be immediately transported to the hospital and was not tested. All five were drug tested, with the results still pending.

From this point, Homendy said the NTSB is planning to interview the fifth crew member, the “Samaritan” couple who aided the survivors, first responders, and current and past employees of the Conception’s local operator, Truth Aquatics. She added that investigators are requesting a huge volume of records covering Coast Guard and 911 call recordings, maintenance records, training documents, policies and procedures, toxicology tests and vessel schematics.

The NTSB will also examine whether dive equipment on board including oxygen tanks — the Conception had been chartered for a three-day diving excursion — played a role in how quickly the vessel burned, by a fire that authorities say blocked the escape routes for the passengers staying below deck.

In response to a reporter’s question Wednesday, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jason Neubauer said that the Conception’s vessel class and size meant it was not required to have an on-board sprinkler system.

Homendy also said she met for two hours with victims’ families Wednesday.

“They’re the most important people to us right now,” Homendy said. “The main message I wanted to get across is how sorry we are for their loss. I can’t imagine what those families are going through.”

She also added: “The public has been fantastic, sending us photos, videos and information that can be helpful to the investigation.”

Homendy said the NTSB will issue preliminary report within 10 days, but that it will not declare any probable cause for the fire, and that it will take one to two years to produce a final report.

More than two days after the fire — which broke out around 3:30 a.m. Monday — authorities have not officially confirmed any of the 34 people killed, but the identities of about half the victims have emerged in social media posts and online tributes. Among the passengers believed to be dead are a family of five from Stockton, two students from Pacific Collegiate school and one of the students’ parents, and a Fremont high school teacher and his daughter.

On Wednesday, the names of other victims emerged: Dan Garcia, an Apple employee, and his wife Yulia Krashennaya; Lisa Fiedler, a hairstylist from Mill Valley; Neal Baltz and Patricia Beitzinger of Arizona; and two Santa Monica residents and friends, Marybeth Guiney and Charles “Chuck” McIlvain. The father of Allie Kurtz confirmed that she was the lone crew member who perished in the fire.

Search crews have recovered the bodies of all but one of the 34 victims in the deadly fire aboard a dive boat off the coast of Southern California, authorities said Wednesday.

Teams continued to search for the remains of the last person who was still missing Wednesday morning, and are developing their plans for recovering the Conception, said Coast Guard Lt. Chris Shih.

“They are still actively searching” for the final victim, Shih said. “The next steps would be trying to figure out what to do with the vessel.”

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Tuesday that most of the people who died in the disaster were from Santa Cruz and the Bay Area.

It remains unclear what caused the fire that officials said quickly consumed the boat around 3:30 a.m. Monday, trapping passengers in their sleeping quarters and preventing all but a handful of crew members from escaping. Coast Guard crews called off their search for survivors Tuesday morning.

The boat was owned by the Santa Barbara company Truth Aquatics, and was chartered by Santa Cruz-based Worldwide Diving Adventures.

Charlie Cooper, co-owner of Aqua Safaris Scuba Center, a dive shop in Santa Cruz that has chartered trips with Truth Aquatics, said the company had a solid reputation among the diving community in California.

“Truth Aquatics is a very well-run organization, the boats are always in good shape,” Cooper said Tuesday. “There was never a minute when I had any reason to doubt that the safety and comfort of the passengers wasn’t the top priority of the captain and crew.”

Neubauer said Truth Aquatics has voluntarily ceased operations while the investigation gets underway.

Staff writers Thy Vo and Joseph Geha contributed to this report.


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