Mourners gather at vigil Conception disaster
Mourners gather Sept. 6, 2019 for a Santa Barbara vigil following the Labor Day Conception dive boat disaster. Thirty-four people were killed when the vessel caught fire and sank near Santa Cruz Island in Santa Barbara County.  (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk file photo)

The families of four Conception dive boat disaster victims are challenging the vessel owner’s claim for limiting liability, and have filed wrongful death claims in federal court, attorneys announced Monday.

On Labor Day, 2019, 34 people were killed when the Santa Barbara-based dive boat caught fire and sank off the coast of Santa Cruz Island. Five crew members escaped, but everyone sleeping in the below-deck bunks died in the fire, according to investigators.

The U.S. District Court documents filed Monday allege the fire was likely caused by a lithium ion battery charging station on the boat, and that Conception owners failed to implement procedures and training to ensure the safety of people onboard.

“The filings document that the 75-foot, 41-year-old vessel was in blatant violation of numerous Coast Guard regulations, including failing to maintain an overnight ‘roving’ safety watch and failure to provide a safe means for storing and charging lithium ion batteries,” attorneys said in a statement Monday. 

On Sept. 6, 2019, Truth Aquatics owners Glen and Dana Fritzler filed a court claim to limit liability in the disaster, saying they took reasonable care to make the Conception seaworthy, and these filings are answers to that document.

“The Conception lacked sufficient means of ingress and egress, its captain failed to properly implement required watch policies and procedures at all times on the Conception, and the Conception failed to have an adequate fire-suppression and detection system,” the cases allege.

Kaustbh Nirmal and Dr. Sanjeeri Deopujari.

Conception passengers Kaustbh Nirmal and Dr. Sanjeeri Deopujari.  (Contributed photo)

Wrongful death cases were filed on behalf of four victims: Dr. Sanjeeri Deopujari, a dentist in Connecticut; her husband, Kaustbh Nirmal, a financial analyst in New York; deckhand crew member Alexandra “Allie” Kurtz; and Cisco product manager Yulia Krashennaya of Berkeley, who was on the trip with her partner, Daniel Garcia.

Each of the four cases asks for damages for their relatives’ severe injuries and emotional distress, funeral expenses, and the loss of future earnings.

Attorneys from Los Angeles-based Panish Shea & Boyle LLP and Philadelphia firm Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky are representing the family members in these cases.

Russell Brown, an attorney for Truth Aquatics, did not respond to a request for comment Monday. 

Conception deckhand Alexandra “Allie” Kurtz.

Conception deckhand Alexandra “Allie” Kurtz.  (Contributed photo)

Multiple agencies are investigating the disaster, including the cause of the fire, but have not released any conclusions yet. There has been speculation reported in media articles that the battery-charging station (for underwater cameras, lights and other equipment) was a possible ignition source.

Surviving crew members said they woke up and discovered the fire had blocked the ladder exits from their bunk area, and they had to jump down to the main deck.

Flames had engulfed the main deck’s salon/galley, and they told investigators they could not get in. Both of the passengers’ bunk area exits (stairs and an emergency hatch) led to the galley.

The preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board determined no crew members were awake on watch at the time of the fire, which was reported at 3:14 a.m. on Sept. 2, 2019.

Conception passengers Yulia Krashennaya and Daniel Garcia.

Conception passengers Yulia Krashennaya and Daniel Garcia.  (Contributed photo)

The report also found that the boat’s passenger bunk room had two smoke alarms, but they were not centrally wired in a way that would notify the wheelhouse or other areas of the boat.  

A full investigative report was expected to take at least a year to complete, the NTSB said at the time.

In October, Truth Aquatics suspended operations of its other two vessels, the Truth and the Vision, indefinitely. Both of those boats are moored at Sea Landing at the Santa Barbara Harbor.

Another related civil case has been filed in Ventura County Superior Court by surviving crew member Ryan Sims, who sued Truth Aquatics and the charter company Worldwide Diving Adventures, alleging general marine negligence.

The Los Angeles Times reported that 322 small passenger vessels were exempt from the U.S. Coast Guard’s 1996 safety measures nationwide, which included larger escape hatches, lighted exit signs, and other changes.

California had the most exempt vessels on the list, which includes Truth Aquatics’ Conception and Vision, which were both built in the 1980s, and another Santa Barbara-based recreational diving vessel, the Peace, which was built in the 1970s.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.