Boat fire victims likely died from smoke inhalation

The United States authorities have said that the 34 victims of the California boat fire likely died from smoke inhalation and not burns. They are believed to include two Singaporeans.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff-Coroner Bill Brown said at a press conference on Friday that preliminary findings indicated that the burn damage on the victims aboard the Conception occurred after death.

“The indicators are, from the preliminary examination of the bodies, that the victims died prior to being burned. That’s what we can say with some certainty,” said the sheriff.

The victims could therefore have already been dead by the time the boat’s crew discovered the fire and tried to rescue them, he said in response to a reporter’s question.

The local authorities also released the names of 22 victims who had been positively identified and whose next of kin had been notified. They included Singaporean Tan Wei, 26, who recently graduated with a master’s degree in engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. She started work as a data scientist in June and was listed by the Sheriff’s Office as residing in Goleta, a coastal town of 31,000 next to Santa Barbara.

Officials made no mention of the other victim, believed to be Singaporean research scientist Sunil Singh Sandhu, 46, but said that they were in the process of confirming the identities of more victims and informing their next of kin.

As of Friday afternoon, the remains of all the victims except one had been recovered. The victims ranged in age from 17 to 60 years old.

The 23m boat caught fire at about 3.15am local time on Monday while anchored off Santa Cruz Island, in one of California’s worst maritime disasters.

Local residents and members of the tight-knit diving community mourned at a Friday evening vigil in Santa Barbara, where they laid carnations and lit candles in front of 34 scuba dive tanks.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Mr Glen Fritzler, the owner of Truth Aquatics which operated the Conception, laid down a carnation. The teary-eyed man was flanked by family members of victims and company employees.

“We are utterly crushed. We are devastated. We are a small, family-run business that has taken this event entirely to heart,” Mr Fritzler said in a Facebook post on Friday.

“Our customers are like family to us, many returning for decades. Our crew is family,” he added.

The five crew members who escaped as they were above deck said they did everything they could to save the victims, but the fire was too strong.

A preliminary report will be out next week, though the full findings on the cause of the fire could take one to two years.