What to Know
- Authorities received a distress call from the burning boat early Monday morning
- The boat was on fire just north of Santa Cruz Island, off the Ventura County coast
- Santa Cruz Island is the largest in the Channel Islands chain off Southern California
Thirty-four people are presumed dead as the search for survivors of a dive boat fire near Santa Cruz Island was called off, authorities said Tuesday.
Twenty bodies have been recovered and nine people were still missing after the Labor Day weekend trip turned tragic when the vessel caught fire early Monday morning off the Southern California coast. Crews searched through the night as families visited an assistance center for family members of people who were aboard the boat and mourners left flowers at the harbor where it departed for the weekend journey.
The victims have not been identified by the coroner's office, but Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said they include 11 females and nine males. In addition to the 20 bodies that were recovered, divers reported seeing other victims in the boat wreckage. Crews will attempt to reposition and stabilize the boat to recover the bodies, Brown said.
The bodies that have been recovered have not been examined to determine a cause of death, Brown added.
Most need to be identified by DNA analysis and officials are collecting samples from family members, Brown said.
Five crew members were rescued early Monday as fire engulfed the boat, but 34 people are feared dead as the search for survivors continued off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, the largest in the Channel Islands chain. The US Coast Guard said the 75-foot diving boat Conception, which left from Santa Barbara Harbor for a scuba diving excursion, had 39 people on board when the fire was reported at about 3 a.m. north of Santa Cruz Island.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney said a cause has not been determined.
"Once we get a little further along, the cause of the fire will be something under investigation," he said.
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After receiving the garbled mayday call, the agency dispatched helicopters, small boats and a patrol cutter in the area for a search-and-rescue operation about 90 miles from Los Angeles. Nearby vessel Grape Escape also assisted with the rescue.
"The entire boat was engulfed, from the bow to the stern and 30-foot flames," Bob Hansen, who captains Grape Escape, described his first look at the fiery boat. "It was just terrible. It was just completely lit up. I mean, there wasn't a place on the boat that wasn't on fire."
Hansen said he rescued five crew members, including the captain, with four of the five survivors dressed in only underwear. He proceeded to radio the Coast Guard while his wife tended to the distraught survivors. Grape Escape captain said that one of the survivors had his girlfriend below deck and said that the boat was hosting three birthday parties over the holiday weekend, including one for a 17-year-old girl who was on board with her parents.
Hansen said of the deadly boat fire, "It's one of those things, you just can't unsee it."
Crews from the Coast Guard, Santa Barbara Fire Department and Ventura County Fire Department responded and were fighting the fire about 20 yards off shore in 64 feet of water. A portion of the bow was sticking out of the water.
Hansen said the Coast Guard took about an hour to arrive, coming from about 25 miles away at night and through fog.
Search-and-rescue teams were looking for survivors along the Santa Cruz Island shoreline, the Coast Guard said at a morning news conference.
Some passengers were asleep below deck as the flames erupted, the Coast Guard said. The rescued crew members were on the top deck of the boat at the time of the fire, according to Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll of the U.S. Coast Guard.
"The crew was already awake and on the bridge, and they jumped off," said US Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester.
When asked whether the crew tried to help others, Rochester said, "I don't have any additional information."
Family members arrived at the Coast Guard command center Monday morning. One man said he was looking for his brother, a member of the Conception's crew.
"I'm hoping for the best for everybody," said James Kohls.
At an afternoon news conference, Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester tempered expectations and said it was unlikely anyone else would be found alive.
Rochester said, "We will search all the way through the night into the morning, but I think we should all be prepared to move into the worst outcome."
DNA identification would be used to identify the four bodies recovered, authorities said at the 4 p.m. Pacific Time news conference. Four bodies had been discovered on the ocean floor but had not yet been recovered, officials also said at the same news conference.
People looking for information about their family members can call 833-688-5551. A Family Assistance Center was being set up at Earl Warren Fair Grounds, 3400 Calle Real in Santa Barbara.
Conception was described by authorities as a diving vessel. A schedule on the Truth Aquatics web site said the boat was set to embark Saturday on a three-day dive in the northern Channel Islands area.
The boat, launched in 1981, is used for large charter groups. It has a bunk capacity of 46 people and includes appliances for food preparation, including a built-in barbeque.
Santa Cruz Island is the largest in the Channel Islands chain off Southern California. The islands have caves, hiking trails and other natural features that attract visitors from around Southern California. The Truth Aquatics trip promises opportunities to see coral and life.
The National Transportation Safety Bureau is sending a team of investigators.
Coast Guard records show inspections conducted last February and in August 2018 found no deficiencies. Earlier inspections found some safety violations related to fire safety.
A 2016 inspection resulted in owners replacing the heat detector in the galley and one in 2014 cited a leaky fire hose.
Records show all safety violations from the last five years were quickly addressed by the boat's owners.