How did crew members survive California boat fire? Their location allowed for escape, sheriff says

The commercial diving boat the Conception caught fire off the Ventura County coast on Monday, trapping dozens of people below deck.
(Ventura County Fire Department)

Five crew members survived the fire aboard the diving boat the Conception early Monday because they were stationed on the deck rather than below it, officials said.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Tuesday there was no indication that any of the people sleeping in the cabins were able to make it out of the fire onto a higher deck. All appear to have been trapped and are now feared dead.

“There was a stairwell to get down the main entryway up and down, and there was an escape hatch,” he said, “and it would appear as though both of those were blocked by fire.”

As of Tuesday morning, the remains of 20 people had been found.
As of Tuesday morning, the remains of 20 people who had been on the Conception had been found. Fourteen people are still missing.
(Ventura County Fire Department)

Brown said the crew members who survived were likely assigned to sleep on the deck. They were able to jump off the Conception when the fire erupted. A cause for the blaze has not been established.

Santa Barbara County authorities plan to formally interview crew members on Tuesday.


As of Tuesday morning, the remains of 20 people — 11 female and nine male — had been found. Fourteen people are still missing.

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.

Authorities said those below deck were likely sleeping when the fire hit and could not get out.

“Most everybody was asleep,” said 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.”

A firefighter surveys the damaged diving boat the Conception.
(Ventura County Fire Department)

Soon after the fire broke out, 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.

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.

Authorities said they got word of the boat fire off Santa Cruz Island in Southern California from a mayday call around 3:30 a.m.