National Transportation Safety Board releases preliminary report on fire that killed 34 people 

All six crew members of the ill-fated dive boat Conception, which caught fire 2 September killing 34 people off the California coast, were asleep when the blaze broke out in violation of regulations requiring a commercial vessel to have a crew member stand night watch.

That was the conclusion of the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) brief preliminary report on the early-morning fire, which specifically did not address the as yet undetermined cause, according to reporting from the LA Times, USA Today, and the Associated Press.

“At the time of the fire, five crewmembers were asleep in berths behind the wheelhouse, and one crewmember was asleep in the bunkroom,” the report stated.

US Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester said a watchman typically walks through the vessel and checks equipment throughout the night. Coast Guard investigators determined, based on early interviews with the crew, that no one was on watch when the blaze broke out.

A lawyer representing Truth Aquatics, the company that owned the boat, disputed that part of the report.

“We do have witness testimony that seems to contradict the notion that the entire crew was asleep,’’ attorney Douglas Schwartz said in a statement. “We do know that one crewmember checked on and around the galley area at around 2:30am, approximately 30 minutes before the fire broke out.”

The NTSB’s preliminary report mentions the presence of two locally sounding smoke detectors in the boat’s bunkroom. The report doesn’t specify whether they were working or if there were detectors in other parts of the boat.

Meanwhile, the United States Coast Guard has issued a safety bulletin recommending that charter vessels limit unsupervised charging of cellphones and other electronics in the wake of the fire. Some experts have speculated that the rapid spread of the on-board fire may be attributable to lithium ion batteries, which have a history of fire hazard and are restricted on air travel.

The Coast Guard said it has convened a Marine Board of Investigation to determine the cause of the blaze, but noted it does not have to wait for the board’s findings before taking “immediate and positive” action.

“In some instances, our marine casualty boards identify pressing safety issues related to vessel stability, the engine room or lifesaving and firefighting equipment,” said Captain Jason Neubauer, chair of the Marine Board of Investigation. “In those instances, we issue safety alerts or bulletins.”