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‘I can’t breathe.... there’s no escape hatch’: Dramatic mayday call from California boat on fire

Smoking remains of Conception dive boat off Santa Cruz Island.
The Coast Guard was involved in a massive rescue operation Monday morning after a 75-foot commercial diving boat caught fire off the coast of Ventura County, trapping dozens of people.
(Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

In a mayday call alerting authorities to the fire aboard a boat in the Channel Islands off Ventura County early Monday, the caller said he could not breathe and that there was no escape hatch for 33 people below the deck.

Late Monday, at least 15 people were confirmed dead while others remained missing after the 75-foot commercial scuba diving boat Conception erupted in flames near Santa Cruz Island.

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Dive teams were working to recover bodies outside and inside the boat, which was upside down at the bottom of the sea, in about 62 feet of water, authorities said.

Those on board were thought to be sleeping below deck when the fire broke out in the predawn hours.

The call was garbled but frantic.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday! Conception ... north side of Santa Cruz,” a man called in at about 3:15 a.m., his words accompanied by static.

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A Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach dispatcher asked the vessel’s position and the number of people on board.

“...I can’t breathe!” the man said.

“You have 29 persons on board and you can’t breathe? What is your current GPS position?” the dispatcher asked.

There is a cacophony of noise and static. The man goes silent, and the dispatcher tries getting him to speak again as nearby boats rush toward the area.

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.

Then, a man can be heard:

“Vessel Conception! Vessel Conception! Vessel Conception! ... Reporting a vessel on fire.”

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Dispatch: “... Your vessel is on fire? Is that correct? ... Are you on board the Conception?”

Some of the dispatcher’s questions are met with unintelligible sounds. It is unclear, in parts of the call, whether the person speaking is a dispatcher or someone connected to the Conception.

A man says: “Roger, there’s 33 people on board the vessel that’s on fire. They can’t get off.”

Dispatch: “Roger, are they locked inside the boat? Roger, can you get back on board and unlock the boat, unlock the door so they can get off? Roger, you don’t have any firefighting gear at all, no fire extinguishers or anything?”

Dispatch: “...Is this the captain of the Conception?...”

Dispatch: “...Was that all the crew that jumped off?...”

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Dispatch: “Is the vessel fully engulfed now?”

A man says: “Roger, and there’s no escape hatch for any of the people on board.”

Five crew members already were awake and jumped off the boat, which was 20 yards offshore of the north side of Santa Cruz Island, according to Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester.

The five crew members were rescued by a good Samaritan boat, the Grape Escape, according to the agency. Two of them sustained leg injuries.

The dispatcher put out a request: “Platts Harbor. The Coast Guard has received a report of the vessel Conception on fire.... All mariners are requested to keep a sharp lookout. Assist if possible. Report any signs to the U.S. Coast Guard.”


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