Federal Agents Search Offices of Destroyed Dive Boat's Operator

The Conception in June 2019 (Truth Aquatics / Facebook)

Published Sep 9, 2019 8:20 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Sunday, federal agents with the Coast Guard Investigative Service, the FBI and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives executed a search warrant at the offices of Truth Aquatics, the Santa Barbara-based operator of the ill-fated dive boat Conception. The search also covered Truth Aquatics' two surviving boats, the Truth and the Vision.

No criminal charges have been filed, and Santa Barbara County sheriff's Lt. Erik Raney told local TV media that the search warrants are a standard part of an investigation. 

The Conception burned and sank on September 2, claiming the lives of 33 passengers and one crewmember. The victims were all belowdecks in a berthing area, and investigators believe that their escape routes were blocked by the fire; coroners' reports suggest that they died from smoke inhalation. 

Five crewmembers were abovedecks and attempted to rescue the passengers without success; they survived by abandoning ship. The fiberglass-hulled vessel burned to the waterline and sank.

Dive search operations continue for the remains of one victim. The search was temporarily suspended on Friday due to poor weather, and the effort will resume when surface conditions improve. Working with Global Diving and Salvage, the Coast Guard intends to raise the wreck of the Conception for use in the investigation. 

Truth Aquatics seeks to limit liability

Though the legal battle over compensation has not yet begun, Truth Aquatics has filed a pre-emptive civil lawsuit claiming that its liability for the fire is limited to the value of the vessel itself. Under the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, a shipowner may petition a court to place a cap on its liability for a marine casualty equal to the ship's value - in this case, Truth Aquatics' lawyers argue, zero dollars.  

"This wouldn’t be something that we as a family would even consider, yet when something like this happens, insurance companies and numerous stakeholders convene and activate a legal checklist. The timing is on them," said Truth Aquatics' owners in a statement. "Our hearts and minds are on the tragedy and finding answers. We are a small-family run business. For 45 years we have never had an incident. We are grieving and reeling and just doing what we are advised by experts both on investigative and legal fronts."

The Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 is controversial among plaintiffs' lawyers, and it often features in litigation after major marine casualties. Notable recent examples include the loss of the con/ro El Faro and the sinking of the duck boat Stretch Duck 07