A deadly California boat fire killed 34 people over Labor Day weekend, including a Wisconsin native. Kristy Finstad (41) was leading a scuba diving trip when the chartered boat caught on fire. Finstad’s company, Worldwide Diving Adventures, chartered the dive boat Conception from Truth Aquatics out of Santa Barbara Harbor. An experienced marine biologist and diving instructor, Finstad also did research for the Australian Institute of Marine Science and wrote a restoration guidebook for the California Coastal Commission. Her brother, Brett Harmeling of Houston, described her as “strong-willed and adventurous.”

California Dive Boat Fire

Conception caught on fire while the boat anchored for the night in Platt’s Harbor off Santa Cruz Island. The fire ignited on Monday, September 1st at about 3:00 AM, trapping all 33 passengers and one crew member below deck. Coast Guard officials recovered the bodies of 34 people. Five crew members who jumped overboard to a nearby vessel survived the fire. Federal officials from the NTSB, U.S. Coast Guard, and FBI are still investigating the cause of the fire. The investigation could lead to changes in the way vessels are designed or protected.

What Caused the Fire?

Federal officials are conducting an intensive investigation to determine what sparked the fire. The NTSB could release a preliminary report within 10 days of the incident, but a final report could take up to two years. Investigators interviewed the surviving crew members and the owner of Truth Aquatics, the company that chartered Conception. As part of the investigation, the NTSB will examine crew training, safety records, survival factors, and whether the boat had life jackets and other safety gear. Federal regulations did not require that Conception install a sprinkler system, as with other passenger vessels. Investigators also toured Vision, a sister ship to Conception, to get a sense of the vessel’s layout.

The LA Times reported two theories about the cause of the boat fire:

  1. A surviving crew member says a phone charging station could have caused the fire, based on the theory that the fire started in the galley where cellphones and cameras were charging overnight.
  2. Roy Hauser, who designed and commissioned Conception, thinks the fire ignited from a lithium battery charger in the bunk area.
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