Final hours on the Conception: Diving, birthday parties, then horrific fire

A 75-foot commercial diving boat erupted in flames off Santa Cruz Island early Monday.
(Ventura County Fire Department)
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It was a quiet night in Platts Harbor, near Santa Cruz Island.

Shirley Hansen and her husband, Bob, had spent the day on the water and anchored their fishing boat Grape Escape in the cove. They cooked a calico bass Shirley had caught and went to bed.

Then, they were woken by a loud thumping noise on the side of their 60-foot vessel.

“It was horrific, the pounding,” Shirley Hansen said. “Our boat is very well made. Having that sound come through [showed] they were very in need of help.”

Outside in a dinghy were crew members from the Conception, a 75-foot commercial diving boat that had erupted in flames. The men were wet, distraught, some wearing just underwear. One man appeared to have broken his leg, Shirley Hansen said. Another had injured his ankle, she said.


By the time the dinghy arrived at the Hansens’ boat, the Conception was engulfed in flames, said Bob Hansen.

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

“As it was burning, there would be explosions going off every couple of minutes,” Hansen said. “It was probably some of the dive tanks exploding. It made me feel so helpless.”

The Hansens were among the first witnesses to the pre-dawn tragedy aboard the Conception, which caught fire near the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island early Monday.

Many aboard were thought to be sleeping below deck when the fire broke out. As of early Tuesday, authorities said at least 15 people had been confirmed dead and others were still missing.

One of the five crew members who escaped to the Hansens’ boat was the ship’s captain, Shirley Hansen said. She said he gave his name as Jerry. (Separately, a photographer told The Times that Jerry Boylan was usually the captain of the Conception.)


The sudden arrival of the crew members was surprising to the Hansens not only because of the early hour, about 3:30 a.m., but also because the Madera couple thought they were alone in the cove.

Shirley Hansen said she and her husband gave the crew members blankets and clothes. Some of the men were crying, one telling them that his girlfriend was still below deck on the Conception.

Another man described how the crew had celebrated three passengers’ birthdays hours earlier, including that of a 17-year-old girl who was on the diving trip with her parents.

Conception crew members asked these boat owners for help. Some of the men were crying, one saying his girlfriend was still below deck.

Sept. 3, 2019

She said two of the crew members got back in the dinghy to see if anyone had jumped overboard.

“But they came back and there was no one that they found,” she said.

Hansen said there was so much smoke from the fire that she had an asthma attack and had to use her inhaler.

“You could see the fire from the windows from our boat,” she said. “It wasn’t far.”

The Hansens brought the most injured crew member ashore, where he was put into an ambulance, she said. The man who identified himself as the captain stayed behind with the Coast Guard, Hansen said.


Hansen said she and her husband used their boat to catch tuna, marlin and sailfish. They recently brought the vessel up to Oxnard.

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

She described feeling helpless as she and her husband tried to aid the crew members and watched the fireball across the water.

“There are a lot of questions to be answered,” she said.

“We don’t feel like good Samaritans,” she added. “We just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”