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Dive boat operator cites 1851 law in California deaths

Investigators continue to look for the cause of a fire that destroyed a California dive boat on Sept. 2 killing 34 people on board. Five crew members survived when the Concepcion burned and sank off the coast, north of Santa Cruz Island.

Upon arriving at the scene, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) expressed several safety concerns, including whether the vessel had proper fire prevention and suppression equipment on board, such as smoke alarms and fire extinguishers. The NTSB is also looking closely into the boat’s escape hatches.

Owners cite 19th Century law

Soon after the tragic event, the dive boat’s owners cited an 1851 maritime law, called the Limitation of Shipowners’ Liability Act, which states liability claims may not exceed the value of the vessel and its cargo at the end of its voyage if the owners were unaware of any problems with the ship. The law was used in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 as well as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

While no charges have been filed and the investigation is ongoing, a potential criminal charge is known as “seaman’s manslaughter,” which targets misconduct or negligence by owners, the ship’s captain or other employees leading to the deaths of others.

NTSB interviews surviving crew members

Crew members report a “harrowing” situation as the fire quickly spread. One crew member reports being awakened by a loud noise and promptly spotted the fire, but did not hear a smoke alarm, according to the NTSB. The FBI says authorities have searched the offices of the ship’s owner, Truth Aquatics, and two other vessels owned by the company.

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