The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department on Friday released the names of nine victims who died when a diving boat caught fire off of Santa Cruz Island, killing at least 33 people in the deadliest maritime disaster in recent California history. Divers continue to search for one person who is still missing.
The Santa Barbara county sheriff, Bill Brown, said the department would release additional names as authorities reached victims’ next of kin.
The cause of the fire is still unknown and will be a focus of investigation in the weeks ahead. But details that emerged since 2 September, when the ship caught fire, paint a harrowing picture of fire erupting as passengers slept below deck, trapping them in an inferno. Brown said Friday that early forensic analysis indicated victims had died before suffering burns, suggesting death by smoke inhalation.
Five crew members escaped the blaze and found help from a nearby “Good Samaritan” ship.
The US coast guard has said the Conception, as the diving boat was named, had passed all recent safety inspections. But in the days since the blaze, inspectors have questioned the safety of the boat’s layout and practices.
Jennifer Homendy, a member of the National Transportation and Safety Board, which is leading the investigation, told the Los Angeles Times she was “taken aback” by the small size of the ship’s escape hatch.
When she toured a sister ship, Homendy noted that simply getting to the escape hatch was difficult.
“You have to climb up a ladder and across the top bunk and then push a wooden door up,” she told the Times. “It was a tight space. We couldn’t turn the light on.”
Neither did the ship designate a “roving watchman” to keep watch while passengers slept.
Efforts are under way to salvage the wreckage, whose remains may offer additional clues to the cause of the fire, but high winds may pose a challenge. Multiple local and federal bodies are involved in the investigation, including the coast guard and the FBI.
The owners of Truth Aquatics Inc, which owned the Conception, on Thursday filed a petition in federal court in an effort to head off future lawsuits. Attorneys representing the owners cite in the petition the Shipowner’s Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, a 19th-century statute that would eliminate owners’ financial liability or lower it to the current value of the charred boat.
They claim in the lawsuit the boat is now worthless. The law was successfully employed after the Titanic sank in 1912.
The Philadelphia-based maritime attorney Robert J Mongeluzzi told the Los Angeles Times the legal move was predictable, if callous.
“It is pretty heartless, when not all the bodies have been recovered, to file something saying their lives are worthless,” Mongeluzzi said.
The victims identified this week range in age from 25 to 62. They are:
Raymond Scott Chan, 59, of Los Altos
Justin Carroll Dignum, 58, of Anaheim
Daniel Garcia, 46, of Berkeley
Marybeth Guiney, 51, of Santa Monica
Yulia Krashennaya, 40, of Berkeley
Alexandra Kurtz, 25, of Santa Barbara
Caroline McGloughlin, 35, of Oakland
Ted Strong, 62, of Germantown, Tennessee
Wei Tan, 26, of Goleta