California boat fire: Rescuers face psychological toll as they recover bodies

The Conception dive boat caught fire Sept. 2 near Santa Cruz Island.
(Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

In the hours after the Conception caught fire, officials expressed hope they might find some of the missing alive.

They searched the waters off the Channel Islands as well as the shore of Santa Cruz Island, hoping some might have been able to swim there.

But it became clear through the day those hopes were fading. Rescuers found only bodies.


Lee Waldron, operations division chief of the Santa Barbara City Fire Department, said Monday night some of the bodies were found within the ship and others were recovered outside it.

Divers from the Santa Barbara and Los Angeles county sheriff’s departments “knew they were not going to find live victims,” Waldron said.

“They’re obviously very difficult conditions,” he said, “both physically and psychologically.”

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.

Bodies were brought to shore late Monday in the Ocean Ranger, a parks service vessel, and lifted onto the Santa Barbara city wharf, where three coroner’s vans were waiting.

As of Tuesday morning, the remains of 20 people — 11 female and 9 male — have been found. Fourteen people are still missing. Between four and six victims were seen by the divers still in the wreckage, but they were unable to be recovered before nightfall, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.

Investigators seek cause of deadly fire aboard California dive boat

“It’s Labor Day weekend — it was supposed to be a great time for these folks,” Waldron said. “I’m sure they were out there enjoying their time among those beautiful islands. ... Hold tight to your loved ones.”

Five people survived — the crew members who had jumped overboard. Officials expressed little hope of finding anyone else alive.