What to Know
- The diving boat Conception caught fire during a Labor Day diving trip off the coast of Southern California
- Thirty-four people trapped below deck died, five crew members escaped
- A cause of the fire, which quickly engulfed the 75-foot boat, has not been determined
The remains of 18 of the 34 people who died in the Conception diving boat fire have been identified as search, recovery and salvage operations continue off the coast of Southern California.
At a news conference Friday, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown also said preliminary examinations suggest the people who died in the Labor Day weekend scuba diving boat fire died from smoke inhalation, not burns.
Brown called the process of identifying the victims a "monumental task" that involved obtaining DNA samples from family members of all 34 victims who were trapped below deck when the chartered boat caught fire early Monday morning north of Santa Cruz Island. The complex process began with a boat passenger manifest that only provided investigators with names.
DNA samples were required due to damage caused by the fast-moving fire that quickly engulfed the 75-foot boat as victims were sleeping below-deck, Brown said. Brown said the FBI helped with that effort across the U.S. and internationally. One relative was a mother in Japan, another was in Singapore and another flew in from India.
"This list is representative of the diverse makeup of the passengers," Brown said. "They were from our local area and from throughout California. They were from the U.S. and throughout the world. We mourn their loss. We will continue working tenaciously."
The identities of nine of the 18 positively identified victims, listed below, were released at the Friday morning news conference.
- Raymond Scott Chan, 59, Los Altos
- Justin Carroll Dignam, 58, Anaheim
- Daniel Garcia, 46, Berkeley
- Marybeth Guiney, 51, Santa Monica
- Yulia Krashennaya, 40, Berkeley
- Alexandra Kurtz, 26, Santa Barbara
- Caroline McLaughlin, 35, Oakland
- Ted Strom, 62, Germantown, Tennessee
- Wei Tan, 26, Goleta
Brown said the remaining victims' IDs were not released because family members have not been notified.
Thirty-three of the victims have been recovered. Dive teams are continuing the search for the 34th and final body.
No autopsies have been conducted. Official causes of death have not been determined, but Brown said preliminary examinations indicate the victims died prior to being burned.
"The belief is that the victims died and that burn damage to the victims was post-mortem," he said.
As for the salvage operation underway Friday, Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said more time. The boat's wreckage, a key piece of evidence in the investigation into what caused the fire, remains underwater.
Salvage operations to recover the Motor Vessel #Conception began yesterday and will continue today. Multiple agencies will be working together to mitigate environmental and safety concerns. This is video of the crane barge Salta Verde on site Wed, Sept 4. pic.twitter.com/kvOYOFSq2W— USCG Los Angeles (@USCGLosAngeles) September 6, 2019
The first step will be to gently roll over the vessel. It will then be stabilized and carefully raised, keeping it intact for investigators.
"Salvage operations can take some time," Rochester said. "It is a very tolling operation. It's not a hurry up-and-lift and be placed on the barge.
Salvage teams are facing strong winds, which can pose a challenge to the operation.
"With winds come some pretty trecherous currents," Rochester said. "The divers can only stay on station for so long and battle the currents."
Among the victims were an engineer for Apple who went on the trip with his wife and daughter to celebrate the teen's 17th birthday, a special effects designer for Disney, a nature photographer, a nurse and a physics teacher from Northern California who was with his 26-year-old daughter. The only crewmember to die was 26-year-old Allie Kurtz, who had just been promoted to deckhand and was living out a dream working on the water.
Five crew members, including the captain, escaped the Conception. They were rescued by a captain aboard another vessel.
The pre-dawn fire quickly engulfed the 75-foot boat anchored north of Santa Cruz Island, one in a chain of islands off the coast of California. It had departed over the weekend from Santa Barbara Harbor on a scuba diving expedition.
The flames blocked a narrow stairway and an escape hatch leading to the upper decks.
The complex investigation will likely include a detailed timeline of events and attempt to answer why no one below deck was able to escape the fast-moving fire. The National Transportation Safety Bureau investigation will not only look at what led to the deadly fire, but also at possible lessons that might lead to changes in regulations for commercial vessels.
"Our mission here while we're on scene is to determine how this happened, why it happened and what safety improvements are needed to prevent it from ever happening again," said the NTSB's Jennifer Homendy.
The investigation team will likely reconstruct a timeline of events from the time the boat left Santa Barbara Harbor. As for evidence, a key piece -- the boat itself -- is on the sea floor about 60 feet below the surface. Some of it might have been carried from the site of the fire by ocean tides.
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The fire is being treated as an accident. None of the evidence indicates there's anything "nefarious," said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Lt. Erik Raney.
The FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are part of the investigation team. The NTSB has about 15 investigators who specialize in engineering, operation and fire prevention. They're expected to be at the site for a week to 10 days, working with the Coast Guard and first responders.
One of the key questions investigators will look into is why no one below deck was able to escape the flames, Majorie Murtagh Cooke, the former director of the NTSB Office of Marine Safety, told the Los Angeles Times.
"With 30-plus people dying, the investigation could lead to changes in the way vessels are designed or protected depending on the findings," Cooke told the Times.
Coast Guard records show fire safety violations on the Conception in 2014 and 2016 were quickly fixed. There were no deficiencies found in February or August 2018 inspections.