A journey to the scene of Conception fire shows increasingly grim search for boat survivors

Image of fire off Ventura County coast
(Ventura County Fire Department)

In the shadow of Santa Cruz Island’s picturesque headlands and rocky fingers, a grim and increasingly frantic search for victims of the Conception boat fire was unfolding.

As the fog lifted on Monday at 2 p.m., at least three vessels were at sea in the vicinity of the doomed dive boat, a compact stretch of ocean a few hundred yards long and wide in a cove at the northernmost end of Santa Cruz Island.

They included a gray salvage ship with a large crane extended over the side where an aluminum skiff was anchored in relatively calm and clear seas with 1-foot swell.


The smaller craft, which had raised a red and white striped flag indicating that there were divers in the water, occasionally lifted anchor and motored to shore.

It was impossible to know, however, if it was ferrying bodies retrieved by divers to the custody of coroner officials.

Nearby, a Coast Guard cutter sliced through the water, warding off all non-rescue boat traffic with its intimidating size and a no-nonsense warning over the radio: “The captain has extended the security zone to 1 mile.”

A commercial diving boat caught fire near the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island, Calif., early Monday. Many aboard the boat were believed to be sleeping below deck when the fire broke out in the pre-dawn hours.

Sept. 11, 2019

Authorities have search the island’s shoreline for possible survivors. But they have also found some victims at the bottom of the ocean.

At least 15 are dead, with others still missing.

Many aboard the boat, identified as the Conception, were thought to be sleeping below deck when the fire broke out in the predawn hours.

Bobbing in the waves at the watery edges of that zone were two vessels chartered by journalists to get a closer look at the rescue operation quietly unfolding in the Channel Islands, about 26 miles off the coast of Ventura Harbor.


In a mayday call about a boat fire near Santa Cruz Island, Calif., the caller says he can’t breathe and there’s no escape hatch for those below deck.

Sept. 2, 2019

Among them was a 36-foot boat operated by Dave Vogt, 36, owner of Channel Islands Parasail in Oxnard.

“It’s hard to believe that one of the worst maritime disasters in California history happened in this scenic little cove,” Vogt said, watching the Coast Guard operation and shaking his head in sadness.

“This should never have happened,” he said. “And that’s why I predict there are going to be lots of new regulations and enforcement coming out of it.”