United States authorities are conducting a criminal investigation into the fiery dive boat disaster that killed 34 people off the coast of California.
The FBI, Coast Guard and US attorney in Los Angeles are overseeing the investigation, according to the two people who were not authorised to speak publicly and commented on condition of anonymity.
On Friday, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said the investigation had not yet taken a criminal turn, though charges were possible.
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That turn of events appeared to happen on Sunday when federal agents raided the office of the boat’s owner, Truth Aquatics Inc. in Santa Barbara, and its two remaining vessels.
Investigators have been gathering other evidence, including interviewing the captain and four surviving crew members, since the September 2 incident off the Channel Islands.
Thirty-three passengers and one crew member were trapped below deck when the fire broke out after 3am on the Conception. Initial examinations indicate the people died of smoke inhalation before being burned, Brown said. All but one body has been found.
Authorities are looking into various safety issues, including whether a night watchman was on duty when the blaze broke out before dawn.
If charges are brought, prosecutors are likely to apply an obscure federal law known as the 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.
The crime carries a potential penalty of up to 10 years in prison and sets a low bar for prosecutors, who only need to prove simple negligence or misconduct on the part of the captain or crew.
A ship captain could be convicted if found to not have proper firefighting or safety equipment aboard or failing to have someone keeping watch.
The criminal probe is taking place as multiple agencies look into the cause of the fire aboard the boat.
High winds have postponed the search for the final victim, as well as salvaging the vessel that sits upside down in 20 metres of water off Santa Cruz Island.
© AP 2019