SANTA BARBARA, Calif.—The search for the final victim of a boat fire off the Southern California coast has been suspended until early next week because of gusty winds and rough seas.
Authorities said they also suspended efforts to salvage the Conception off of Santa Cruz Island because the conditions were expected to last through the weekend.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Lt. Erik Raney says the Conception has been secured underwater, where it will remain until it is safe to resume the salvage operation.
Thirty-four people died when the boat caught fire and sank before dawn on Monday. They were sleeping in a cramped bunkroom below the main deck and their escape routes were blocked by fire.
Five crew members jumped overboard after trying to rescue the 33 scuba divers and one crew member, federal authorities and the boat’s owner said. The crew, including the captain, said they were driven back by flames, smoke and heat.
Medical examiners say the victims appear to have died from smoke inhalation.
“The indicators are from the preliminary examination of the bodies that the victims died prior to being burned,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said on Friday. “The burn damage to the victims was post-mortem.”
Multiple investigations into the disaster are focused on determining what happened and have not become a criminal probe, though Brown said charges are possible.
Speculation has grown about whether the captain and four other crew members who survived had tried to help the others before jumping from the flaming vessel. But they said that by the time they saw flames, it was too late.
The crew members told investigators a “harrowing story” about the moments after the blaze erupted before dawn Monday as it lay at anchor, Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday.
They jumped from the bridge area to the main deck—one breaking a leg in the effort—and tried to get through the double doors of the galley, but they were on fire.
That cut off both escape routes from the sleeping quarters: a stairway and an escape hatch that exited in the galley area. The crew then tried, but failed, to get into windows at the front of the vessel.
“At that point, due to heat, flames and smoke, the crew had to jump from the boat,” Homendy said.
Captain Jerry Boylan stayed aboard trying to send radio distress calls and was last in the water, said Glen Fritzler, co-owner of Truth Aquatics Inc. of Santa Barbara, which operated Conception.
“The other crew at a certain point when the flames had engulfed the boat and they were in the water, they could see Jerry jump from the upper deck, a long jump. And there was a trail of smoke following him. They thought he was on fire,” Fritzler told KEYT-TV in Santa Barbara.
“Within minutes, they would’ve been consumed,” he said. “So they did their best. They did re-enter the vessel from the back of the boat after they swam around it. They could not get to firefighting equipment because everything was engulfed.”
The survivors used a skiff at Conception’s stern to reach a nearby boat, and two of them then returned to see if they could rescue any other survivors, Homendy said. They found no one.
Fritzler said the experience has traumatized the survivors.
“They’re breaking down,” he said. “They’re seeking counseling. It’s a very tough time for them.”
Meanwhile, Truth Aquatics filed a lawsuit Thursday in federal court that uses a pre-Civil War provision of maritime law to limit their liability from any victims’ claims. The lawsuit argues that the company and its owners made the boat seaworthy and it was properly manned and equipped.