Santa Barbara unveils memorial to 34 dive boat fire victims on one-year anniversary

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SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (NewsNation) — The first anniversary of the scuba boat fire that killed 34 people off Southern California was commemorated Wednesday at Santa Barbara Harbor, where the ill-fated trip began and memorial has been put in place.

Relatives of those who died and first responders came to view the plaque bearing the names of the 33 divers and one crew member who died.

In a recorded online remembrance, Harbor Patrol Officer Ryan Kelly recalled how he responded with partner Karl Halamicek in a patrol boat when the boat was reported ablaze off Santa Cruz Island shortly after 3 a.m. on Sept. 2, 2019.

“It would turn out to be the most tragic call of our careers,” Kelly said.

The Conception was carrying 33 passengers on a Labor Day weekend scuba diving expedition near an island off Santa Barbara. The fire broke out while passengers were sleeping and quickly swept through the vessel.

The plaque is located on a boulder on the breakwater near the harbor’s Lost at Sea memorial, which is adorned with mementos of the Conception victims.

The online event included recorded video messages by local officials to the families of those who died.

“May you find peace,” said Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo.

The Conception’s captain and four crew members barely escaped after trying to save the others, authorities have said. Investigations into the cause of the inferno and whether someone is to blame are still ongoing.

The captain of the boat, who could face an unusual federal manslaughter charge, was briefed in July on the evidence prosecutors have against him. It’s the type of meeting often used to persuade a suspect to plead guilty, lawyers for the boat’s owners said last week in a related lawsuit.

An attorney for Capt. Jerry Boylan and federal prosecutors declined to comment on the disclosure.

All the passengers and one crew member perished in the bunk room beneath deck. It’s unclear if any had time to try to escape. Coroners said they died from smoke inhalation before their bodies were burned.

All six crew members were asleep when the fire broke out, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. If that’s the case, it would violate Coast Guard regulations requiring a roving watch.

Prosecutors would only need to prove simple negligence or misconduct on the part of the captain or crew. Conviction carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

Families of 32 of the victims and one crew member have filed claims against the Fritzler family trust and the boat company, Truth Aquatics. The Fritzlers and the company in turn have filed a legal claim to shield them from damages under a maritime law that limits liability for vessel owners.

Attorney Russell Brown, who represents the Fritzlers and made the disclosures in court papers, did not return a phone call or email seeking comment.

The five-person NTSB will hold an Oct. 20 meeting to vote on the safety investigation’s findings, as well as the blaze’s probable cause and any potential recommendations.

The NTSB is a federal regulatory agency but it has no enforcement powers and can only submit its suggestions to bodies like the Federal Aviation Administration or the Coast Guard, which have repeatedly rejected some of the board’s safety recommendations.

The Coast Guard has issued additional safety recommendations in the wake of the tragedy, such as limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and the use of power strips and extension cords.

The Associated Press and NewsNation affiliate KTLA contributed to this report.

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