(CN) – The U.S. Coast Guard announced on Wednesday its formal investigation into the deadly fire that claimed the lives of 34 people on a scuba diving boat off the coast of Southern California last week.
The announcement comes the same week federal and local law enforcement served search warrants as part of a criminal probe into the fire.
The Marine Board of Investigation is the highest-level marine casualty investigation within the Coast Guard and will look at factors that contributed to the deadly fire that sparked on the Conception scuba diving boat on Sept. 2 while passengers were sleeping below the deck.
All of the passengers’ bodies have been accounted for. Five crew members, including the captain, jumped off the front of the vessel, swam to an inflatable boat and steered it to a ship anchored nearby.
Fire engulfed the 75-foot vessel and flames and smoke likely blocked both the narrow stairway and escape hatch out of the lower decks, according to authorities.
The Coast Guard’s formal investigation panel will consist of four members who will review the pre-accident historical events, regulatory compliance, crew member duties and qualifications, weather conditions and safety and firefighting equipment onboard.
They will also review if there was any act of misconduct, inattention from crew members and negligence or willful violation of the law. That includes whether there is evidence that anyone caused or contributed to the passengers’ deaths, including employees with Truth Aquatics who owned the dive boat.
The Coast Guard announced it may take a year or longer to complete its formal investigation, but it will not have to wait for the results to make any immediate actions, said Capt. Jason Neubauer, chair of the investigation.
“In some instances, our marine casualty boards identify pressing safety issues related to vessel stability, the engine room, or lifesaving and firefighting equipment,” Neubauer said in a statement.
Meanwhile, a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board released Thursday indicated all crewmembers aboard the Conception were asleep when the fire broke out.
The two-page report says five crew members were asleep in the wheelhouse berths in the upper deck of the boat, while another member was asleep in a bunkroom below deck. A crewmember told investigators they were awakened by a noise and that’s when they saw smoke rising from a salon compartment but did not see a fire coming from the engine room.
Investigators say crewmembers were unable to get to the passengers below deck because a ladder was already on fire. When they jumped to the main deck the salon and galley were already fully engulfed in flames.
All passengers who were below deck died in the fire along with the sixth crewmember, according to the report.
The NTSB is the lead federal agency for the safety investigation.
Earlier this week, the Coast Guard, FBI and Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office, along with the ATF served search warrants as part of a joint investigation.
The FBI has requested tips and videos from the public who may have seen the fire or have any other information as part of their investigation.
DNA will be required to identify all the victims from the Conception, which sank over the Labor Day weekend. Passengers included high school students, a science teacher and his daughter, along with a marine biologist and a family of five celebrating a birthday, according to media reports.
The fire erupted shortly before 3 a.m. as the boat sat anchored in Platt’s Harbor off Santa Cruz Island and was on a three-day excursion west of Los Angeles.
Shortly after the fire, Truth Aquatics filed a lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles that said it should be exonerated from or face limited liability for any claims arising from the fire which killed 34 people.