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NTSB: Cell Charging a Possible Ignition Source in Dive Boat Fire

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The Conception's fiberglass hull on fire (Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

By The Maritime Executive 2019-09-05 19:56:45

After an extensive dive search, the remains of 33 out of 34 missing individuals from the dive boat Conception have been recovered, and officials are using DNA analysis to determine the identities of the victims. An investigation into the cause of the deadly fire continues, and officials with the NTSB have conducted initial questioning for the five crewmembers who survived. 

While the circumstances of the blaze are not yet known, attention has turned to the possibility that a charging station for personal electronics in the berthing area may have been the source of ignition. One survivor believes that battery charging may have been the cause, according to the LA Times, and the NTSB said Thursday that it would be examining this scenario. 

“We are not ruling out any possible ignition sources,” NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said Thursday at a press conference. “[There] may have been a lot of cameras and cell phones that were charging on this vessel.”

Dive trip organizer Ken Kurtis, the owner of California charterer Reef Seekers Dive Company, told Fox News that the charging station could have potentially been an ignition source. 

"We know that divers were carrying cameras and stuff like that that have rechargeable batteries. [Was] there an issue with some of these chargers? It could be something as simple as a small camera battery being charged overnight while everybody's asleep, has a short, and that's what starts the fire," said Kurtis. He added that he had never heard of a serious fire incident aboard any California dive boat before, and that it was a risk that the community of California divers had not thought much about previously. 

Combustible materials

The Conception was a fiberglass-built passenger vessel constructed in 1981. The U.S. Coast Guard classifies fiberglass laminate (fiber reinforced plastic) as a combustible material, and in previous deadly fires, fiberglass-hulled passenger vessels have demonstrated the potential to burn to the waterline.

Recent Coast Guard inspections had determined that Conception was fully compliant with all applicable regulations, including applicable fire protection requirements. Those rules do not require vessels of her size to be built from noncombustible structural materials, as federal and international law requires for large passenger vessels. 

Subchapter T passenger vessels - under 100 GT and with fewer than 49 berths, like the Conception - may use fiberglass materials for hull, decks, bulkheads and superstructures. The federal requirements for the construction of Subchapter T fiberglass vessels are class rules, and were last revised in 1978.