By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The FBI on Tuesday asked the public for video or photos of the Labor Day fire aboard a California dive boat that killed 34 people, saying it was seeking the images as part of its investigation into one of the state’s worst maritime disasters.
The request came as divers returned to the charred wreckage of the 75-foot (23-meter) Conception to begin raising it from the ocean floor, a crucial next step in the investigation. Search and rescue teams hope that in bringing the ship to the surface they can recover the remains of the final victim.
The FBI set up a webpage, http://www.fbi.gov/boatfire, for the submission of images and said witnesses could call the agency at an 800-number with tips.
Federal authorities have opened a criminal investigation into the incident, a source has told Reuters. No criminal charges have been filed.
The Conception, owned by California-based Truth Aquatics, caught fire at about 3:15 a.m. on Sept. 2, killing 33 passengers and a crew member as it sank off Santa Cruz Island.
Five crew members, including the captain, were above deck when the blaze broke out and survived by leaping overboard, telling investigators the flames made it impossible to rescue the passengers. All of the victims are believed to have died of smoke inhalation.
Agents from the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the U.S. Coast Guard and local sheriff’s deputies have served search warrants at the offices of Truth Aquatics and on two other ships belonging to the company.
One of the other ships, the Vision, closely resembles the Conception.
The Los Angeles Times has reported that the investigation was focused on possible safety lapses aboard the Conception, including the lack of a night watchman and failure to properly train the crew for such emergencies.
Crew members have told investigators they did not hear smoke alarms before awakening to discover flames erupting from below decks, according to National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy.
Coroner’s investigators have used DNA tests to identify the 33 badly burned bodies recovered so far, forgoing formal autopsies in order to speed the return of the remains to families, some of whom traveled from as far away as India.
Truth Aquatics filed a petition in federal court in Los Angeles last week seeking to avoid liability by invoking a 19th-century law that has been used in such disasters as the 1912 sinking of the Titanic.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Lisa Shumaker)