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Dive boat owners seek legal protections under 1851 law

Investigators continue to look for the cause of a Sept. 2 fire off the coast of Southern California that killed 34 people aboard a dive boat. They hope for answers after the remains of the Conception were brought to the surface near Santa Barbara. Five crew members survived the fire.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is joined in the investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) after the vessel was towed to a nearby naval installation where its power, fuel and electrical systems will be examined.

Ships owners cite 19th century maritime law

The dive boat’s owner, Truth Aquatics, filed a petition citing the 1851 Vessel Owners Limitation of Liability Act that could eliminate any compensation for victims’ families. The law limits an owner’s liability to the value of the ship and the cargo it was carrying. The law was implemented in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The Titanic’s value was set at $96,000, which was split among nearly 1,500 families. Truth Aquatics claims the Conception’s value is zero. The families of the 33 passengers and lone crew member who died will be summoned for a court hearing before a federal judge.

Investigators focus on safety procedures

The NTSB and ATF are focusing on witness reports that the fire began in the boat’s sleeping quarters and was possibly started by an overheated lithium battery charger. One crew member also told investigators she did not hear any smoke alarms when the blaze awakened her.

The NTSB said no crew members were awake to alert passengers of the fire in the early morning hours, even though federal law required the charter boat to have a night watchman on duty. Crew members who survived may be covered under the Jones Act, which protects people who earn a living at sea and face hazards not seen by land-based workers.