Witnesses and people who know the diving boat that caught fire off the Southern California coast early Monday have a theory about what might have caused the deadly pre-dawn blaze: charging cell phones.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the fire aboard the Conception near Santa Cruz Island and is expected to deliver its verdict next week. But theories are already emerging that the lithium ion batteries in personal electronic equipment, known to explode under the right conditions, might have sparked the flames that trapped people sleeping below deck and left 34 dead.
Only five of the crew, who were above deck, were able to escape.
One survivor told the owner of the boat that came to the Conception’s rescue that he thought the fire started in the boat’s galley, where people had left their cell phones and cameras to charge overnight, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The boat’s designer had a similar theory: The fire was started by batteries, but it started in the bunk area.
“This had to have been, in my estimation, one of those lithium battery chargers,” Hauser told the Los Angeles Times. “This happened in the belly of the boat. Those people did not have a chance to get out: From stem to stern, that boat was burning.”
And the owner of the dive company that operated the boat said on “Fox and Friends” that the authorities had ruled out an explosion as the cause, which, he said, means an electrical fire could’ve been to blame. The spark could’ve come from a short circuit in the boat’s generator, or from a cell phone or camera left charging on board.
Exploding lithium ion batteries are a concern on planes. The Federal Aviation Administration requires all batteries to be in the cabin; they can’t be kept in checked bags. The U.S. Navy has a long list of recommendations for keeping safe while carrying lithium ion batteries on boats, including storing them in protective containers.
“Most dive boats now require you to charge them externally on the deck,” Mike Strong, a Phoenix-area dive instructor told the Los Angeles Times. But on the Conception, there were charging outlets in the galley.
If the fire had started in the bunk area or the galley, that would help explain why the sleeping passengers couldn’t escape. Fires on boats tend to start in the engine area. If this fire started in the bunk area, it would’ve made it harder for them to get out via the stairwell or the tiny escape hatch on the Conception.
Cover: This Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, image from video released by the U.S. Coast Guard shows a Coast Guard Sector San Diego MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter video screen, as crew responds to the vessel "Conception" boat fire off Santa Cruz Island near Santa Barbara, Calif. (U.S. Coast Guard via AP)