The distress call crackled on Coast Guard radios around 3:15 a.m. Monday.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday! ... Conception ... north side of Santa Cruz,” a man yelled. “I can’t breathe!” He said dozens were trapped on board the Conception, a 75-foot commercial dive boat that was engulfed in flames as it sat anchored near the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island.
Around that time, surviving crew members woke Shirley Hansen as they pounded frantically on the side of her nearby fishing boat, the Grape Escape. They had paddled over in a dinghy, some of them injured.
Two crew members jumped back into the dinghy in hopes of rescuing others. “But they came back and there was no one that they found,” Hansen said.
At least 15 people were confirmed dead, and others were still missing late Monday, authorities said. Five people survived — the crew members, who had been awake and jumped overboard. Officials expressed little hope of finding anyone else alive.
The names of the dead and missing have not been released.
One crewman said his girlfriend was trapped aboard. Another said the Conception had celebrated the birthdays of three passengers — including that of a 17-year-old girl aboard with her parents — just hours before.
The horror of the event — one of California’s worst maritime disasters in recent memory — was palpable among officials.
“This isn’t a day we wanted to wake up to for Labor Day and it’s a very tragic event,” Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said at an afternoon news conference. “I think we should all be prepared to move into the worst outcome.”
Into the evening, passersby stopped by a makeshift memorial at the Santa Barbara Harbor to pay their respects to victims. Around 7:30 p.m., Orlando Aldana, 42, lighted 34 candles at the memorial.
“Every candle that I lit made me feel like I was representing someone that passed away in the boat,” Aldana said.
Local, state and federal investigators were trying to determine exactly what went wrong on the Conception, a vessel once described by California Diving News as “California’s crown jewel of live-aboard dive boats.”
Victims who had signed up for a three-day dive excursion were believed to be in their bunks below deck when the fire started, about 20 yards off the north shore of Santa Cruz Island, part of the Channel Islands off the Ventura County coast.
“Most everybody was asleep,” said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, noting the combination of remote location, rapidly spreading fire and the victims’ vulnerable position on the boat. “You couldn’t ask for a worse situation.”
Fire crews rushed to extinguish the boat, which sank about 7:20 a.m. Monday and now lies inverted on the ocean floor, about 60 feet down.
Hansen said it had been a quiet night in the cove in Platts Harbor. She and her husband, Bob, had spent the day on the water, cooked a calico bass she had caught, and gone to bed. The Madera couple were unaware of the Conception, anchored about 200 yards away. They thought they were alone in the cove.
She described the pounding that awoke them as “horrific.”
“Our boat is very well made,” she said. “Having that sound come through [showed] they were very in need of help.”
She said there was so much smoke pouring from the Conception that she needed an inhaler. She said two of the crew members who made it off the dive boat had injuries to their legs. Some were in underwear. One of the crew members gave his name as Jerry and identified himself as the captain.
“As it was burning, there would be explosions going off every couple of minutes,” Bob Hansen said. “It was probably some of the dive tanks exploding. It made me feel so helpless.”
Shirley Hansen said they brought the most injured crew member to an ambulance ashore, while the man who identified himself as the captain stayed behind with the Coast Guard.
“We don’t feel like good Samaritans,” she said. “We just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
One of the Conception’s crew members is among the missing or dead.
The Conception launched from from its base in Santa Barbara Harbor on Saturday morning. At Santa Barbara Harbor, employees were hugging each other as people boarded boats on fishing excursions.
The company that owns Conception, Truth Aquatics, runs several boats off the Channel Islands and is a well-established name in the diving world. Glen Fritzler, the boat owner, won the California Scuba Service Award this year for his pioneering work in the industry.
The Conception is where Fritzler met “the love of his life, Dana,” California Diving News reported. “On the couple’s first dive together they encountered a 17-foot great white shark, truly a memorable first dive-date experience.” Fritzler told the paper his firm’s boats have hosted more than 450,000 divers and more than 1 million dives.
Ralph Clevenger, a photographer who regularly takes pictures of expeditions for Truth Aquatics, has been on hundreds of diving trips with the company since the 1990s. He said the man who usually captained the Conception was a veteran, top-notch leader.
“It’s a position where if you’re not good with people and your crew, and operating the boat, you just don’t last,” Clevenger said.
Rochester, the Coast Guard captain, said the Conception “has been in full compliance” with maritime regulations.
Bruce Rausch, a veteran dive master in Orange County, said he has been on more than a dozen diving trips aboard the Conception. He said dives are preceded by extensive safety briefings including the location of bunk room exits and life jackets.
On social media, the scuba diving community expressed grief Monday.
“The boat, owners, Captain and crew have always been exemplary and have kept us safe and returned us back to the dock,” according to a Facebook post from San Luis Obispo dive shop SLO Ocean Currents. “It is a humbling day and a reminder to make every day count.”
From Channel Islands Scuba, a Thousand Oaks dive shop: “I know we speak for the SoCal diving community when we say we were shocked to hear the news this morning.”
And Gov. Gavin Newsom posted: “Our hearts are with the families and loved ones affected by this tragic incident. As we wait to hear more, we are eternally grateful for our heroic first responders that are on site — working to ensure every individual is found.”
Times staff writers Soumya Karlamangla, Jaclyn Cosgrove, Laura Newberry, Louis Sahagun, Leila Miller, Matt Hamilton, Carolyn Cole, Ben Welsh and Christopher Goffard contributed to this report.