Crew reports multiple attempts to save 34 boat passengers

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The crew of a scuba diving boat that sank off the coast of Southern California made several attempts to rescue the 34 people who were trapped below decks by fire, but intense flames drove them back and all perished, federal authorities said Thursday.

Orlando Aldana, 42, of Santa Barbara, lights candles in honor of the victims at the growing memorial for those caught in the fire on the Conception boat, Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, in Santa Barbara, Calif. A fire raged through the boat carrying recreational scuba divers anchored near an island off the Southern California coast early Monday. (AP Photo/Stefanie Dazio)

All those lost in the Labor Day tragedy aboard the Conception were sleeping in a bunkroom below the main deck when fire broke out around 3 a.m. The captain and four crew were above and survived, and one of the searing questions was whether they tried to help the others before saving themselves.

The crew members told investigators in "very lengthy, detailed, comprehensive interviews" what Jennifer Homendy, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, called a harrowing story of the moments after the fire erupted on the vessel.

One said he awoke to a noise — but did not hear a smoke alarm — and saw flames "erupting" from the ship's galley below, Homendy said. He tried to get down a ladder, but flames had engulfed it.

Crew members then jumped from the ship's bridge to its main deck — one breaking a leg in the effort — and tried to get through the double doors of the galley, under which the ship's 33 passengers and a 26-year-old crew member slept. A stairway and escape hatch from the bunkroom both exited into the galley.

With the galley's doors on fire, the crew went around to the front of the vessel to try and get through windows but couldn't.

"At that point, due to heat, flames and smoke, the crew had to jump from the boat," Homendy said.

Two swam to the back of the vessel to retrieve a skiff and rescue the remaining crew. They took the skiff to a boat named the Grape Escape that was anchored nearby and called for help and then steered the skiff back toward the burning Conception to see if they could rescue any survivors. None were found.

Earlier this week, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said the captain of Conception made a mayday call before leaving the boat. Brown said it's believed the 34 victims never got out of the bunkroom because flames blocked the stairway and the emergency hatch.

Searchers recovered 33 bodies and continued searching Thursday in the waters just off Santa Cruz Island for the lone remaining victim.

Meantime, the owners of the Conception — Truth Aquatics Inc. of Santa Barbara — filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles that uses a pre-Civil War provision of maritime law to limit their liability from any victims' claims. The lawsuit argues the company and owners Glen and Dana Fritzler made the boat seaworthy and the craft was properly manned and equipped.

Coast Guard records show the boat passed its two most recent inspections with no safety violations.

The NTSB is just a few days into what will be a lengthy investigation that seeks to determine the cause of the fire and identify potential safety enhancements to avoid future disasters. They are examining potential ignition sources for the fire, including electronics, kitchen stoves and the vessel's wiring systems. Investigators know photography equipment, batteries and other electronics were stored and plugged in on the Conception.

"We are not ruling anything out at this point," Homendy said.

A day earlier, she toured another Truth Aquatics boat similar to the Conception and said she was concerned about the accessibility of its emergency exit hatch and possible difficulties getting to safety.

None of the names of the victims have been released by authorities but many have surfaced through relatives, friends and employers.

On Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statement identifying two of the victims as Adrian Dahood-Fritz and her husband, Andrew Fritz. Dahood-Fritz had worked for the California Natural Resources Agency's Ocean Protection Council since April as a senior environmental scientist.

"Adrian led the state's efforts to manage California's network of marine protected areas, and she cared deeply about the ocean and biodiversity," Newsom said. "She embodied marine conservation and was a highly accomplished and respected scientific researcher."

The only crew member to die was Allie Kurtz, 26, who quit her corporate job at Paramount Pictures to work on dive boats. Kurtz, who grew up in Illinois, had recently been promoted to deckhand.

Other victims included two high-schoolers, a hairdresser, a marine biologist, software engineers, a special effects designer for Disney, a nature photographer, a nurse and a family of five celebrating a birthday.

Their common love of scuba diving led them to the ruggedly beautiful coastline of the Channel Islands for a three-day excursion offered by Truth Aquatics, which had compiled a sterling reputation over decades of service. Previous patrons said Truth Aquatics and the captains of its three boats were very safety-conscious.

Cheryl Babineau, owner of Pro Scuba Dive Center in Scotts Valley, California, and a certified diver for 45 years, said what happened aboard the Conception has shaken the industry. She said boat passengers sometimes tune out when the captain and crew members review safety instructions for a dive trip. She expects that will change.

"I think now people will pay a lot more attention," she said.

Owner of dive boat where 34 died seeks to head off lawsuits

The owners of the dive boat where 34 people perished in a fire off Southern California filed a lawsuit Thursday to head off potentially costly litigation, a move condemned by some observers as disrespectful to the families of the dead.

Truth Aquatics Inc., which owned the Conception, filed the action in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles under a pre-Civil War provision of maritime law that allows it to limit its liability.

Investigators are still searching for what caused the blaze that wrecked the boat, which remains upside down at the bottom of the sea near the Channel Islands.

The time-tested legal maneuver has been successfully employed by owners of the Titanic and countless other crafts — some as small as Jet Skis — and was widely anticipated by maritime law experts. Still, the fact it was filed just three days after the deadly inferno Monday came as a surprise to legal observers.

Families of the deceased, who are not named in the complaint, will be served with notice that they have a limited time to challenge the company's effort to clear itself of negligence or limit its liability to the value of the remains of the boat, which is a total loss.

"They're forcing these people to bring their claims and bring them now," said attorney Charles Naylor, who represents victims in maritime law cases. "They have six months to do this. They could let these people bury their kids. This is shocking."

Professor Martin J. Davies, the maritime law director at Tulane University, said the cases always follow accidents at sea and always look bad, but they are usually initiated by insurance companies to limit losses.

"It seems like a pretty heartless thing to do, but that's what always happens. They're just protecting their position," Davies said. "It produces very unpleasant results in dramatic cases like this one. ... The optics are awful."

The U.S. law dates to 1851, but it has its origins in 18th century England, Davies said. It was designed to encourage the shipping business. Every country with a shipping industry has something similar on the books.

In order to prevail, the company and owners Glen and Dana Fritzler have to show they were not at fault in the disaster.

They asserted in the lawsuit that they "used reasonable care to make the Conception seaworthy, and she was, at all relevant times, tight, staunch, and strong, fully and properly manned, equipped and supplied and in all respects seaworthy and fit for the service in which she was engaged."

Even if the captain or crew are found at fault, the Fritzler's and their insurance company could avoid paying a dime under the law, experts said.

All of those who died were in a bunkroom below the main deck. Officials have said the 33 passengers and one crewmember had no ability to escape the flames.

Crew members told investigators they made several attempts to rescue the people who were trapped before abandoning ship, the National Transportation Safety Board said. None of the survivors has spoken publicly.

The court filing not only seeks to protect the boat owners from legal exposure, but also will require any lawsuits to be filed in the same federal court.

A judge will hold a non-jury trial to see if the company can successfully show it wasn't at fault. If that's the case, any claimants would only be entitled to the value of the remains of the ship, which the suit said is a total loss with zero value.

There's a long history of ship owners successfully asserting this protection. The case involving the White Star Line, the owners of the Titanic, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that a foreign owner could assert protection of the Limitation Act, attorney James Mercante said.

In that case, plaintiffs eventually withdrew their lawsuits and filed them in England, where the company was based. British law, even though it also limited damages, provided a bigger payout than the value of the remaining lifeboats.

While the law can shield owners from damages, over 90% of cases where injury and death are involved are settled before trial, Mercante said.

Attorney A. Barry Cappello, who is in discussions with another firm to represent family members of the Conception victims in court, said there's a strong case to show negligence in the boat fire and that good lawyers can find a way around the admiralty law in federal court.

"The law is so antiquated and so skewed in favor of the ship owners that damages for wrongful death type cases is very limited unless one can prove exceptions," Cappello said.

Cappello recently prevailed in a case in which a company that rented a paddleboard to a man who drowned in Santa Barbara Harbor had asserted the liability protection. A judge ruled the admiralty law didn't extend to such crafts, though the company has appealed.

Davies said from what he's heard of the disaster, there's a realistic prospect the owner might prevail if the boat was properly equipped and the cause of the fire remains mysterious.

If the owner loses, there's the potential of unlimited liability.

"That's why the fight is always about limitation because if you've got unlimited liability, well, ... 30 dead people is a whole lot of money," Davies said.


Watson reported from San Diego. Associated Press writers John Antczak and John Rogers in Los Angeles and Janie Har in San Francisco, Amy Taxin in Santa Ana, California, and researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this story.

Copyright 2019 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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