LOS ANGELES (CN) – The families of four victims of the deadly dive boat fire off the coast of Southern California sued the vessel’s owners in federal court Monday, claiming a pattern of poor safety practices and a skirting of Coast Guard rules led to deadly operating conditions.
On Sept. 2, 2019, Truth Aquatics’ 75-foot dive boat Conception was packed with scuba divers sleeping below deck after a weekend of activity in the Channel Islands National Park. At about 3:30 a.m., while anchored off Santa Cruz Island, an inferno tore through sleeping quarters on the 41-year old vessel – blocking both an escape hatch and a stairway leading outside.
All 33 passengers who were below deck with a crewmember died in the fire, according to a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report.
Five of six crew members escaped after they spotted the flames and – unable to reach passengers – jumped off the boat and swam to a nearby vessel, the NTSB report found.
Families of three passengers and one crewmember who died in the blaze filed wrongful death claims in Los Angeles federal court Monday. They say the fire could have been prevented except for Truth Aquatics’ inadequate live-saving systems and its failure to maintain a constant safety watch through the night.
“Due to the lack of the night watch, the fire went undetected until it was too late,” the families claim in their lawsuit, which also states the blaze was likely caused by a lithium-ion-battery charging station onboard the vessel.
Robert Glassman of Panish Shea & Boyle, an attorney for the victims’ families, said in a statement that families deserve to know what went wrong and that future tragedies like this can be prevented.
“Make no mistake, the owners of the Conception were responsible for providing a safe, seaworthy vessel and failed to do so,” Glassman said. “Through discovery, we intend to determine, for instance, why the Conception had noncompliant escape hatches in the event of an emergency, among what appears to be a litany of safety lapses.”
The claims come months after Truth Aquatics filed a petition in federal court shortly after the fire seeking to minimize liability for the tragedy.
Truth Aquatics owners Glen Richard Fritzler and Dana Jeanne Fritzler claim in the petition that they worked diligently to ensure the boat’s seaworthiness, including complying with staffing, supply and equipment standards.
Philadelphia-based Robert Mongeluzzi, a maritime liability attorney representing the victims’ families, said in a statement that the Fritzlers’ petition is frivolous.
“The defendants killed these victims by breaking the law and failing to have a roving night watch whose job was to prevent the very catastrophe that occurred,” Mongeluzzi said in the statement. “Rather than mourn those whose lives they took with their failure to obey the law, they lawyered up and mercilessly filed an action to limit their liability before many of the bodies of these victims were even recovered.”
A preliminary NTSB report indicated all crewmembers aboard the Conception were asleep when the fire broke out.
Investigators say crewmembers could not 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.
The NTSB is investigating the fire along with the FBI, the U.S Attorney’s Office and the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation.
The families seek economic, noneconomic and punitive damages.