A criminal investigation is underway into the dive boat fire that killed 34 people while anchored near Santa Cruz Island on Labor Day.

The FBI, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles are overseeing the investigation, the Associated Press reported Monday, citing two people who were not authorized to speak publicly and who commented on condition of anonymity.

Confirmation of a criminal probe comes on the tail of news over the weekend that federal search warrants had been executed in Santa Barbara on Sunday. Such warrants in themselves indicate a criminal investigation is in play, but authorities have not formally acknowledged it.

MORE: Numerous government agencies help navigate aftermath of California boat fire

“We have confirmed that the Coast Guard, the FBI, the ATF and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office have executed federal search warrants in Santa Barbara,” Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, said Monday in an email to The Star. “We are participating in the joint investigation.”

ATF refers to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The federal search warrants were filed under seal, Mrozek said. A U.S. magistrate judge in Los Angeles authorized the searches Saturday. Because the documents are under seal, Mrozek said he could not comment further on their contents.

Investigators have been gathering other evidence, including interviewing the captain and four surviving crew members, since the Sept. 2 tragedy off the Channel Islands.

Authorities are looking into various safety issues, including whether a roving night watchman was on duty when the blaze broke out before dawn.

There are also reportedly questions about whether the crew had adequate training to handle a major emergency on the vessel, according to the Los Angeles Times.

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The diving community and maritime professionals have generally heaped praise on the Conception’s owner, Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics Inc., along with the boat’s captain and crew. The long-running operation has been depicted as professional, safety-conscious and maintaining top-notch facilities, according to numerous interviews in the wake of the tragedy.

On Sunday morning, federal agencies served search warrants at Truth Aquatics’ office at the Santa Barbara Harbor. The company’s two remaining commercial dive vessels, the Truth and the Vision, were both searched as well, according to Lt. Erik Raney of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.

If charges are brought, prosecutors are likely to apply an obscure federal law known as the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute, which predates the Civil War and was enacted to punish negligent captains, engineers and pilots for deadly steamboat accidents that killed thousands, the AP reported.

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The crime carries a potential penalty of up to 10 years in prison and sets a low bar for prosecutors, who only need to prove simple negligence or misconduct on the part of the captain or crew.

The law can also be extended to a boat owner or charterer who engages in “fraud, neglect, connivance, misconduct, or violation of law” that takes a life. That is harder to prove and used less frequently, said attorney Kierstan Carlson, who advises maritime clients to expect a criminal investigation in the case of deaths.

A ship captain could be convicted if found to not have proper firefighting or safety equipment aboard or failing to have someone keeping watch.

“That means somebody in charge of the vessel, in charge of major operations,” Carlson said. “There are some cases where a captain will put a really junior person who is not sufficiently experienced in charge. That would also be a breach of the standard of care.”

While the manslaughter law was not widely used after being written in 1838 and beefed up in 1852, it has been used more frequently in the 21st century, Carlson said.

The charge was brought in the 2003 Staten Island ferry crash that killed 11, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig blowout and the sinking last summer of a duck boat in Missouri that killed 17.



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A salvage barge arrives off Santa Cruz Island on Sept. 4, 2019, to bring the burned and sunken Conception back to the mainland.
Ventura County Star

The criminal probe of the Conception tragedy is taking place as multiple agencies look into the cause of the fire aboard the boat.

A specialized ATF team is investigating the fire’s cause and origin, while the National Transportation Safety Board is looking into safety aspects of the probe.

The Conception left Aug. 31 from the Sea Landing facility at Santa Barbara Harbor for a three-day diving venture. It had been scheduled to return later Monday. A makeshift memorial has since sprung up on the walkway near the launch site.

A fire engulfed the Conception after 3 a.m. Sept. 2 while the nearly 80-foot vessel was anchored off the coast of Santa Cruz Island. Thirty-nine people were aboard, six of them crew members.

MORE: At memorial for boat fire victims, tragedy moves even strangers to tears

Five crew members who were above deck when the fire broke out escaped to safety. The other 34 people on board were trapped in the sleeping area below deck. All died in the fire. Sheriff’s authorities have said preliminary examinations indicate they died from smoke inhalation.

So far, 33 bodies have been recovered. Authorities have publicly identified 22 of them.

Meanwhile, efforts to salvage the Conception were postponed to at least Wednesday, Coast Guard officials said. High winds on Saturday suspended efforts to find the 34th body and to salvage the boat. Officials hoped to resume operations Monday, but weather conditions were too rough.

The Conception ultimately sank and flipped over in the aftermath of the fire. Salvage efforts successfully turned the vessel upright Friday, but it remained underwater as of Monday.

Associated Press reports were used for this story.

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