California boat fire: ‘Devastating. Tragic.’ Frantic family and friends await answers

James Kohl awaits word on his brother
James Kohl awaits word on his brother, a cook on the boat that caught fire off Santa Cruz Island.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

In the early morning hours on Monday, as news of the devastating fire aboard the diving boat Conception spread, family members and friends of those believed to be on board began racing to sites in Ventura County and the Santa Barbara shores seeking any bit of information about their loved ones.

James Kohl rushed to the Coast Guard headquarters in Oxnard, hoping to learn the fate of his brother, Mike, a cook on the Conception, which erupted in flames near the shore of Santa Cruz Island about 3:30 a.m., killing at least eight with more than two dozen passengers missing.

Many aboard the boat were believed to be sleeping below deck when the fire broke out, triggering intense flames that engulfed the 75-foot vessel. Five crew members, who were on the deck at the time, escaped and were rescued by a good Samaritan boat nearby. The Conception sank around 7:20 a.m., the Coast Guard said.


Names of those missing and dead are being withheld pending next-of-kin notifications.

The Conception had departed from Santa Barbara Harbor on Saturday morning and was scheduled to return Monday about 5 p.m. By early afternoon dozens of flower arrangements lined the railing at the harbor’s Sea Landing, from where the Conception left.

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

Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village), who arrived at the harbor along with family members seeking answers, said: “Devastating. Tragic. And we’re hoping there could still be some survivors.”

Harbor employees said they could not comment on the tragedy and were still waiting to hear from the Coast Guard. Employees were hugging each other as tourists and other people going fishing were boarding a nearby boat.

By about noon, officials had established a family assistance center at Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara and a phone line was opened at (833) 688-5551.

Suzanne Grimmesey, a Santa Barbara County spokeswoman, said numerous family members of passengers were en route and are traveling from out of the area.