The FBI is conducting an investigation of a boat fire that claimed 34 lives in California. Over Labor Day Weekend, a diving tour boat burst into flames along the coast of Santa Cruz Island around 3:15 a.m. on Monday. Five crew members escaped and were rescued, but 34 others, who were sleeping below deck at the time the fire began, lost their lives. Now, as part of a federal investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the U.S. Coast Guard served warrants Sunday at the Santa Barbara headquarters of Truth Aquatics, the company that owned the boat. The warrants are seeking information related to training, safety, and maintenance records. Agents also searched two additional boats belonging to the company.
A preliminary investigation into the boat fire found potentially serious safety deficiencies, including the lack of a “roaming night watchman” who is required to be awake and alert passengers in the event of a fire. Sources who spoke confidentially to the Los Angeles Times said that the investigation also has raised questions about whether the crew was adequately trained and whether passengers received a complete safety briefing.
Officials are still working to fully examine the boat. Conception, the 75-foot-long vessel that sank, was resting inverted on the ocean floor but has been uprighted, although it remains submerged in about 60 feet of water. It has been secured in place to allow for additional examination. Law enforcement officials have stated that they have no reason to believe any crime was committed.
Anticipating the potential civil actions following the boat fire, the owners of the Conception filed a petition in federal court, arguing that under an1851 maritime statute, their financial liability should be an amount equal to the post-fire value of the boat, or $0. According to the petition, none of the victims’ relatives or representatives have sued, but the owners say they’ve received notice for legal claims. The owners filed under The Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, which was adopted to protect shipowners in the mid-1800s, whose ships would depart on voyages that could last for years, with very little communication. Shipowners would have little to no knowledge of causes of fatal incidents on board their ships and were wary of liability for unjust claims; Congress passed the statute to encourage investment in maritime industry.
Since it became law, this statute has been used routinely by ship owners after boat accidents to avoid payment to the families of victims, including owners of the Titanic, the owners in the Deep Water Horizon oil rig disaster, the 2015 sinking of the El Faro cargo ship, and various duck boat incidents, including the 2018 Missouri duck boat sinking that killed 17 passengers.
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