FBI divers prepare to depart Santa Barbara Harbor Wednesday morning to the scene where the dive boat Conception burned off Santa Cruz Island earlier this week. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

NTSB report: Crew members on doomed fishing boat were all sleeping when fire broke out

A National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report released Thursday on the tragic boat fire earlier this month off of the Santa Barbara coast determined that all crewmembers on board were asleep when the fire started.

The fire shortly after 3 a.m. on Sept. 2 left 33 passengers and one crewmember dead on the 75-foot commercial diving boat Conception as it was anchored off Santa Cruz Island southwest of Santa Barbara during a three-day diving trip, according to the NTSB.

Santa Barbara County sheriff’s officials have said a majority of the victims who died were from the Bay Area. As of Tuesday, 27 of the 34 people who died have been identified and had their families notified.

From initial interviews with surviving crewmembers, investigators learned that five crewmembers were asleep in berths behind the boat’s wheelhouse on the top level of the three-level vessel, and one was asleep in the passenger berthing area within the hull, according to the two-page preliminary report.

One of the crewmembers in the wheelhouse berths woke up because he heard a noise and saw a fire rising from the salon level below. He alerted the rest of the crew behind the wheelhouse and the captain radioed a distress message to the U.S. Coast Guard, according to the report.

The report said the crewmembers tried to get to the area where the passengers were sleeping but were overwhelmed by smoke and had to jump overboard. Two crewmembers and the captain swam to another area of the boat and got back on, opened the hatch to the engine room and saw no fire.

The crew eventually launched a small skiff and went to a recreational boat anchored nearby to continue radioing for help. Coast Guard crews and firefighters arrived to extinguish the fire on the boat, which subsequently sank in about 60 feet of water, according to the report.

The source of the fire remains under investigation, and NTSB officials have collected documents from recent Coast Guard inspections of the boat and visited another vessel, Vision, owned by the company Truth Aquatics Inc. that owned the Conception.

All but one of the 34 people who died have been found. The Santa Barbara County coroner’s office is working to identify the remaining people whose names haven’t been released and are using DNA samples from family members to do so.

According to the NTSB, salvage operations have begun to bring the wreckage of the Conception to the surface.

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