Five surviving crew members from the commercial diving boat Conception are cooperating with National Transportation Safety Board investigators after the vessel caught fire and sank near Santa Cruz Island Monday, killing 34 people.
Investigators began interviewing the vessel’s owner/operator, captain and other crews members on Wednesday, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said at a press briefing Wednesday afternoon, adding that “today is our first full day on scene, and it was an extremely productive day.”
Details of what crew members shared with investigators have not been disclosed, and the interviews are ongoing, Homendy added.
“I characterize those interviews as very cooperative,” she said during the briefing at the Sheriff’s Barbara County Sheriff’s Department headquarters. “They are lengthy, multi-hour (and) detailed interviews.”
Alcohol testing was conducted on four of the five crew members, Homendy said. One injured person was not tested because he was being transported to the hospital, she said.
The alcohol tests were negative, Homendy said.
All five people were drug tested, and investigators are awaiting the results, said Capt. Jason Neubauer of the U.S. Coast Guard’s office of investigations.
The Conception was anchored near Santa Cruz Island in the early-morning hours Monday when a massive blaze broke out, apparently trapping 34 people sleeping in bunks on the vessel’s lower deck.
Five crew members were reportedly on an upper deck and were able to leap into the water to escape the flames. A sixth crew member was with passengers on the lower deck and is believed to have perished.
Homendy said the NTSB inspected the Vision, a “similar vessel ” to the Conception also owned by Truth Aquatics, and located at Sea Landing at the Santa Barbara Harbor.
“I wanted to lay eyes on the vessel and get a sense of the layout,” Homendy said.
Investigators are scheduling more interviews in the next few days, she said, including another crew member, the owners of the good Samaritan pleasure craft that helped the crew members who escaped the fire, Coast Guard inspectors, first responders, company employees, past employees and others.
The NTSB also requested “a number of documents, material and data,” Homendy said.
Investigators have requested Coast Guard recordings from the search and rescue efforts, 9-1-1 dispatch calls, maintenance and training documents, licensing information, policies and procedures, information on fire protection systems and engineering systems, the vessel’s inspection history, and operations manuals “if they exist,” among other data.
She described the investigation as “comprehensive.”
A preliminary report on the disaster likely will be released in about 10 days, according to Homendy. The final report, including the probable-cause declaration and other findings, will be completed in 12-18 months.
The Santa Barbara-based Conception was not required to have a sprinkler system installed because of its size, according to Neubauer.
Investigators are still trying to find out the last time the ship was inspected, Neubauer said.
As of Wednesday morning, 33 bodies had been recovered, according to Santa Barbara County officials. One person remained missing.
The names of those killed have not yet been officially released.
Homendy said she met two hours on Wednesday with families who lost their loved ones.
She described the incident as a “heartbreaking” and a “horrific” tragedy.
“The biggest thing I wanted to get across is how sorry we are for their loss,” she said. “It’s clear they are devastated.”
NTSB teams are documenting the wreckage that’s submerged in about 60 to 65 feet of water.
The Conception is inverted, Homendy said, and plans are underway to salvage the vessel.
Side-scan sonar is documenting the remains of the boat, Homendy said, adding, that investigators want “as much video and digital images as we can get before the vessel is moved.”
The NTSB is requesting the public’s help in providing videos, photographs or other evidence that might be helpful in the investigation, Homendy said.
Information can be shared with the NTSB at email@example.com.