January 29, 2023
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Key issues emerge in Conception dive boat fire that killed 34


A memorial at the Santa Barbara Harbor for those who have died at sea.

Investigators raised the remains of the dive boat Conception to the surface after more than a week of unfolding developments in the wake of the fatal fire aboard the vessel.

Activities at Santa Barbara Harbor were returning to normal levels amid an ongoing investigation into what caused the fire that killed 34 people. A year-old Ventura-based nonprofit has taken the lead in gathering donations to provide financial assistance to the victims and families.

With investigations, legal issues and getting compensation to victims likely to drag on for months or even years, here are five key issues ahead in the Conception boat tragedy:

The recovery: Salvage operations had recovered the remains of the boat and moved it to a secure, undisclosed location. Investigators served search warrants at the Santa Barbara-based owner of the vessel, Truth Aquatics, and the Sea Landing dive center Sept. 8 to gather evidence as part of a probe into the cause of the fire.

The joint investigation was being conducted between the FBI, U.S. Coast Guard, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and U.S. Attorney’s Office. The search included the two businesses and Truth Aquatics’ remaining two vessels, but the terms of the warrants were sealed as part of the ongoing inquiry.

A preliminary report released by the National Transportation Safety Board outlined the timeline of events in the early morning of Sept. 2. All six crew members were asleep when the fire broke out, the report indicated. The fire engulfed the boat’s salon where both the main stairwell and the emergency hatch led out of the passenger berthing rooms, blocking access for the crew members. Investigators said they plan to review the current regulations for the class of vessel, as well as the alarm systems, evacuation routes company policies and training.

The victims: The body of the final missing victim was found Sept. 12 in a cove just west of Platt’s Harbor, where the boat sank. The names of all the victims were released after their families were notified.

Aid for families: Westlake Village-based nonprofit California Strong has established a fund to gather donations for the immediate financial needs of the families of the victims, enlisting help from high-profile regional residents like actor Rob Lowe.

With family members of the Conception victims located throughout the state and even across international borders, nonprofit leaders told the Business Times it was difficult to coordinate donations and disbursements.

California Strong was formed in response to the November mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks and the Woolsey and Hill fires that broke out hours later in East Ventura County. The founding team sought to fill the need for a nonprofit that could respond to similar tragedies.

Operating under the Southeast Ventura County YMCA, California Strong had recently concluded more than $1.4 million in disbursements to more than 650 families affected by those incidents and hosted a fundraiser in August in anticipation of future needs, said Director Danielle Stone.

Since its launch Sept. 5, the Conception fund had raised $28,583. Donations and applications for aid are scheduled to close Oct. 7.

Donations go to support immediate financial needs for victims and their families, she said, including things like airfare and hotel stays while the remains are being identified.

“There are just tremendous costs associated with disasters like this,” Stone said. “The whole purpose is just to make sure these family members get a little bit of relief.”

Get more information at www.californiastrong.org.

Salvage operations: Weather difficulties kept some businesses in the harbor in the week following the accident, but acting waterfront director Brian Bosse said most did not see any impacts from the salvage operations or the investigation of the fire.

“I think the harbor community as a whole is still trying to deal with the tragedy,” Bosse said. “It’s been quiet and somber, but it’s still a busy place.”

Truth Aquatics has suspended all other dive trips until further notice, according to its website. The three Truth Aquatics ships were the only large charter carriers operating out of the harbor, but several smaller sea charters carrying up to six passengers each were still offering fishing and diving excursions.

Dive trips also continued out of Ventura harbor, where some divers were able to shift their bookings, sources said.

Legal maneuvering: A maritime law invoked by Truth Aquatics in U.S. District Court would require any of the victims or their families to file a claim for damages within six months if it’s approved by the judge, insurance and legal experts told the Business Times. The rule would also confine all claims to a single case and deny a jury trial.

“All of those people are going to be forced into one single court case in front of one judge all at the same time,” said Arthur Severance, a maritime law consultant. “This is a real advantage for the owner and the owner’s insurer,” who can then negotiate with all the injured parties all at the same time. “It forces them into court really early.”

The rule would not extend to suits brought against the city, if any negligence is alleged in its role as the lessor for the boat, or equipment manufacturers if the investigation reveals that an equipment malfunction contributed to the disaster, experts said. Still to be settled are issues such as the effect of waivers signed by passengers or liability for actions by crew members such as failure to conduct safety drills or failure to post an all-night watch.

• Contact Marissa Nall at mnall@pacbiztimes.com.




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