Burning boat takes clues of fatal fire down to watery grave

By BRIAN MELLEY, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Officials vowed to find what sparked the inferno aboard the dive boat Conception that killed 34 people in waters off Southern California but vital evidence may have gone down with the ship or drifted out to sea.

The main piece of evidence, the charred remains of the boat, rests on the sea floor in 60 feet (18 meters) of water. Other items that could provide valuable clues could have been carried away by the tides or destroyed in the blaze that burned so hot DNA was needed to identify the dead.

“All of that will be a very large hurdle to overcome,” said George Zeitler, a former Coast Guard inspector, who runs his own marine investigation firm. “It will definitely make for a complex investigation.”

Investigators will want to produce a timeline of the ship‘s final voyage from the moment it pulled from a Santa Barbara dock early Saturday morning until dispatchers received the frantic mayday call of the breathless captain overwhelmed by smoke, experts said. They will look at the ship‘s layout and whether the bunk room below deck was too cramped and had enough exits, review maintenance records, even study photos and videos from people who have been on the boat to look for valuable evidence.

As the investigation into the Labor Day tragedy expands on land and sea, federal and local authorities will be looking not only at determining what went wrong but also seeking lessons that could lead to changes in regulations for commercial vessels.

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