LOS ANGELES — One of the deadliest accidents in recent U.S. maritime history was the fault of owners of a Southern California dive boat whose lack of oversight resulted in a fire that swept through the vessel and killed 34 people in their bunks below deck, federal safety officials ruled Tuesday.

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The dive boat Conception is engulfed in flames on Sept. 2, 2019. The fire aboard the commercial scuba diving vessel off the Southern California Coast killed 34 people. Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP

The National Transportation Safety Board said the Conception’s captain failed to post a roving night watchman aboard the vessel, which allowed the fire to quickly spread and trap the 33 passengers and one crew member. The NTSB also faulted the Coast Guard for not enforcing that requirement and recommended it develop a program to ensure boats with overnight passengers actually have the watchman.

Last year’s tragedy during a Labor Day weekend scuba diving excursion near Santa Cruz Island off Santa Barbara prompted criminal and safety investigations. Court documents say charges against the captain, Jerry Boylan, are imminent.

In a chilling revelation, investigators told the NTSB that because some of the recovered bodies were wearing shoes, they believe the victims were awake and trying to escape before being overcome with smoke. Both exits from the bunkroom were blocked by flames and coroner reports list smoke inhalation as the cause of death for all.

Board member Jennifer Homendy, who traveled to Santa Barbara in 2019 and toured a sister ship of the Conception, blasted Boylan and the owners, Truth Aquatics, during a virtual hearing on the investigation findings.

“I hate the term accident in this case because, in my opinion, it is not an accident if you fail to operate your company safely,” Homendy said.

Before the disaster, Boylan and Truth Aquatics enjoyed a good reputation with customers and the Santa Barbara boating community. Coast Guard records show the Conception had passed its two most recent safety inspections.

But NTSB investigators condemned the company and captain for a litany of issues including failing to train the crew on emergency procedures.

“Clean up your act,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said, referring to Truth Aquatics.


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