Criminal Probe in Deadly California Boat Fire

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Authorities running a criminal investigation into the deadly scuba diving boat fire that killed 34 people off the Southern California coast plan to interview previous patrons of the boat company to determine what kind of safety information they were provided during trips, the Associated Press reports. Investigators will ask the patrons about possible safety violations and what they saw on the boat during their excursions with Truth Aquatics Inc. The FBI, Coast Guard and U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles are participating in the investigation with other agencies. Investigators want to know if the captain and boat owners followed safety requirements.

Investigators have been gathering other evidence, including interviewing the captain and four surviving crew members, since the Sept. 2 tragedy off the Channel Islands. Thirty-three passengers and one crew member were trapped below deck when the fire broke out after 3 a.m. on the Conception. Initial examinations indicate the victims died of smoke inhalation before being burned. Authorities are looking into various issues, including whether patrons received safety briefings and if a night watchman was on duty when the blaze broke out before dawn. If charges are brought, prosecutors are likely to apply the federal 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. Prosecutors need prove only simple negligence or misconduct on the part of the captain or crew. While the 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, said maritime attorney Kierstan Carlson. It was cited 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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