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Small Emergency Hatch, Cell Phone Chargers Suspects in Deadly California Dive Boat Fire

New reports suggest cell phone chargers and a small emergency hatch may have contributed to the deaths of 34 people aboard the Conception, a dive boat that burst into flames off the California coast in the predawn hours of Labor Day morning.

5 Crew Members Escaped California Dive Boat Fire

The California dive boat fire occurred shortly after 3:00 a.m. on September 2nd, as the Conception was moored just 20 yards from the shore of Santa Cruz Island.

Thirty-three passengers and six crew had boarded the 75-foot vessel just two days earlier in Santa Barbara Harbor for a weekend diving excursion in the Channel Islands. Monday was to be their last on board, with the boat due back in Santa Barbara at 5:00 p.m.

Unfortunately, the return trip never happened, as all 33 passengers and one crew member were asleep below deck when the fast-moving fire broke out. Just five crew sleeping topside managed to make it off the Conception alive.

NTSB Investigator “Taken Aback” by Emergency Hatch Size

A 16-member team from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been investigating the California dive boat fire since Tuesday. On Wednesday, the team toured the Vision, a sister ship to the Conception.

The Vision is slightly larger, but has a similar layout, including bunks stacked two and three high in a single sleeping cabin and a wooden stairway up to the galley. An emergency hatch located over a bunk also leads to the galley, opening just a few feet from the large main deck. The stairway and emergency hatch on the Conception were the only avenues of escape for those below deck, but both apparently became blocked by fire.

To get a better idea of what the Conception’s passengers might have endured, the NTSB investigators extinguished all of the cabin lights on the Vision and exited the sleeping quarters through the hatch. During a briefing yesterday afternoon, board member Jennifer Homendy said the team had difficulty accessing the emergency exit and could not find light switches in the dark.

“You have to climb up a ladder and across the top bunk and then push a wooden door up,” she said. “It was a tight space. We couldn’t turn the light on.”

Homendy also said she was “taken aback” by the size of the escape hatch and suggested the small opening could pose problems in an emergency, especially for larger people.

Cell Phones May Have Been Charging in Conception Galley

It’s still not clear what caused the California dive boat fire.

According to The Los Angeles Times, at least one surviving crew member indicated the blaze began in the galley, where passengers had plugged cell phones and cameras to charge overnight. That practice would constitute a major safety hazard.

“Most dive boats now require you to charge them externally on the deck,” Mike Strong, a Phoenix-area PADI master dive instructor, told The Times. “There are fewer combustibles out there and more firefighting equipment.”

Roy Hauser, who designed the Conception and commissioned its construction in 1981, also suggested the electronic devices might have sparked the deadly fire.

“This had to have been, in my estimation, one of those lithium battery chargers,” he said. “This happened in the belly of the boat. Those people did not have a chance to get out: From stem to stern, that boat was burning.”

Lithium batteries have triggered hundreds of fires aboard airplanes and in airports. In fact, as the Los Angeles Times noted, the Federal Aviation Administration now prohibits airline passengers from stowing any device powered by a lithium battery in their checked luggage, unless they’re turned off and protected from damage.

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