'Taken Aback' by 'Small' Escape Hatch, Calif. Boat Fire Investigator Reveals 'Harrowing' Details
The NTSB official said she has "concerns about the ability of those passengers being able to evacuate during a fire"
As the investigation continues into the deadly California boat fire earlier this week, serious questions are emerging about the safety of the ship.
On Wednesday, Jennifer Homendy, who is overseeing the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation, toured the Vision, a similar vessel to the diving boat Conception. Both are owned by Truth Aquatics.
During the visit, Homendy said she was “taken aback” by the size of the ship’s emergency hatch, according to The Los Angeles Times.
“It surprised me how small it was and how difficult it was to access,” she said, adding that she and the investigators also had difficulty finding a light switch.
“I definitely have concerns about the ability of those passengers being able to evacuate during a fire,” she added.
Although the NTSB has yet to release the findings of their investigation, which is still underway, several law enforcement sources told the Times that evidence points to several “serious safety deficiencies,” including that there was no “roaming night watchman” onboard, who could have kept a lookout for any danger.
During a press conference this week, Homendy also confirmed that investigators are looking into whether the crew and the passengers received adequate safety training.
During Thursday’s press conference, which the NTSB said would be the organization’s last until they issue a preliminary report in the coming days, officials outlined the “harrowing story” communicated by surviving crew members.
“What’s emerging from the interviews is a harrowing story of the moments before the fire erupted on the vessel,” Homendy said, adding that one crew member reported having “awoke to a noise” only to discover “flames erupting from the galley area.”
Although the crew member reported having attempted to open “the double doors of the galley” in order to try and rescue the passengers inside, “it was engulfed in flames at that time.”
Several crew members onboard also reportedly tried to rescue the passengers through the “front part of the vessel” but “could not get into the windows.”
“At that point due to heat, flames and smoke, the crew had to jump from the boat,” Homendy said, adding that after calling 911, some of the crew returned to the vessel to try and “rescue any survivors.”
In total, 39 people — 33 passengers and six crew members — were aboard the boat when it erupted in flames off the coast of Santa Cruz Island just after 3 a.m. on Monday. The 34 people who were sleeping below deck were trapped and killed, while five crew members — the only ones not below deck — survived.
“I’m numb,” said Glen Fritzler, the owner and operator of Truth Aquatics, in a phone interview with Spectrum News 1 on Tuesday. “There were a lot of people that were on that boat that I knew personally, people that I had dealt with for decades.”
“Of all of the years I’ve been in this business, I’ve never seen or heard of anything like this,” Fritzler added. “It’s a complete tragedy. It’s horrible.”
According to News 1, the company is temporarily ceasing operations out of respect to the family.
“We all have so many questions at this point,” he told the outlet. “We need answers like the public needs answers.”
Coast Guard Lt. Zach Farrell said all but one of those left trapped by flames had been recovered by Wednesday afternoon, the Associated Press reported.
Authorities have not yet identified the victims, though Santa Barbara County’s Sheriff-Coroner Bill Brown said the process is “underway.”
As news broke of the fire, speculation spread that the passengers were “locked” in the sleeping quarters after the dispatcher on the distressing mayday call appeared to repeatedly use that term. However, at Tuesday’s press conference, Brown said that wasn’t the case.
“There was a stairwell to get down the main entryway up and down and there was an escape hatch and it would appear that both of those were blocked by fire,” he said.
Authorities from the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board are still investigating the cause of the fire.
“We are not ruling out any possible ignition sources,” Homendy said on Thursday.