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California boat fire rescue suspended after no signs of other survivors; 20 bodies found, 14 still missing

Olivia, left, sister of a female crew member who died in the boat fire, hugs Jennifer Stafford, who placed flowers at a memorial at the Santa Barbara Harbor.
Olivia, left, sister of a female crew member who died in the boat fire, hugs Jennifer Stafford, who placed flowers at a memorial at the Santa Barbara Harbor.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Rescuers have suspended their search off the coast of Santa Cruz Island for passengers who were trapped aboard the Conception when the diving boat caught fire and sank early Monday. The rescuers said there are no signs of additional survivors.

NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said the federal agency started its investigation at 10 a.m. Tuesday. The team of 16 investigators specializes in engineering, operations, survival factors and fire prevention.

“This was a terrible tragedy,” she told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “I cannot imagine what the families are going through.”

Homendy said the team will be on site for seven to 10 days and will work closely with the Coast Guard and first responders.

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“The NTSB is leading this safety investigation,” she said, noting investigators want to determine the fire’s cause and what can be done to prevent similar accidents.

The investigators will meet Tuesday evening to determine if other technical experts are needed, she said. The agency could release a preliminary report within 10 days of the accident, but a final report could take two years.

“We will provide factual information when it becomes available,” she said.

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.

During the investigation, NTSB will interview survivors, first responders and the companies involved in the diving trip. Investigators will examine crew training, safety records, survival factors and whether the boat had life jackets and other safety gear. Homendy said she is “100% confident” that investigators will determine the cause of the fire.

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If investigators uncover safety issues, the agency will issue immediate safety recommendations to protect the public from similar accidents, she said. The agency plans to update the public on Wednesday and Thursday.

Adam Tucker, the lead investigator, said the Conception was not required to have any type of black box recording device.

Marjorie Murtagh Cooke, former director of the NTSB Office of Marine Safety, said in an interview with The Times that investigators will try to answer several key questions, including why no one below deck was able to escape the flames.

“Vessels have to have two exits for escape by law for the sleeping quarters,” Cooke said. “It appears that both exits from the sleeping quarters bring you up inside the vessel.”
Cooke, a marine safety expert at the consulting firm Robson Forensic, said the exits from the sleeping quarters — a staircase and a hatch, based on images made public — lead to the mess and galley, which appear to be one large room.

If both escape routes from the sleeping quarters lead to the same area, a fire there could potentially block the only means for passengers to get out, she said.

“With 30-plus people dying, the investigation could lead to changes in the way vessels are designed or protected depending on the findings,” she said.

The remains of 20 people — 11 female and 9 male — have so far been found. Fourteen people are still missing. Officials called off the search at 9:40 a.m. after spending roughly a day combing across 160 miles of the Pacific. A flyover of the area showed no additional signs of distress or debris in the water, said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester.

“It is never an easy decision to suspend search efforts,” Rochester said. “We know this is a very difficult time for family and friends of the victims.”

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Four to six victims were seen in the wreckage on Monday, but they couldn’t be recovered before nightfall. Crews will try to stabilize the boat so divers can safely enter it and remove the bodies, said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.

Tyler McCurdy, supervisor of the FBI’s Ventura office, said that the FBI’s evidence response team will recover evidence on behalf of NTSB and the sheriff’s office. He would not say what type of evidence they are recovering.

Five crew members, who had been awake and jumped overboard, survived the devastating fire. A sixth crew member who was asleep in the same area as the passengers is feared to be dead. Thirty-nine people were on board when the fire broke out. Officials expressed little hope of finding anyone else alive.

Officials have launched an investigation “to try to determine why this incident occurred and what we can learn from this tragedy moving forward,” Rochester said.

The names of those who perished in the fire have not been released.

Officials have received more than 100 calls from family or friends who believe their loved ones were on board the Conception. Investigators are comparing the information from the callers with the list of passengers on the boat. Most of the people aboard the ship were from the Santa Cruz and San Jose areas, officials say.

A special team from the California Department of Justice is helping Santa Barbara County officials use a rapid DNA analysis tool that can help identify victims quickly, Brown said.

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Officials will begin mapping DNA profiles for the 20 victims on Tuesday, so they can be compared with family samples. The family samples will be collected using a cheek swab, he said.

It was still dark early Tuesday as several fishermen carted equipment to the dock at the Santa Barbara Harbor, where the Conception had departed days earlier on a $665, three-day dive excursion. The men glanced at a row of glowing candles, each lighted for a victim of one of California’s deadliest sea tragedies.

Mourners hung several dozen white, yellow and red flowers on a metal fence on the approach to the Sea Landing Dock. A message written on a pair of blue fins read, “We love you Conception.”

A young woman, who would give only her first name — Olivia — visited the makeshift memorial at the harbor Tuesday morning. She said her 26-year-old older sister, whom she declined to name, was the sixth crew member aboard the Conception.

Her family called around frantically on Monday, she said, only to learn the worst late in the day: Her sister was below deck when the fire broke out and didn’t survive, she said.

“It makes no sense,” she said, her voice breaking. “It’s not fair — not fair at all.”

Two students from Pacific Collegiate School, a public charter school in Santa Cruz, are among the missing, according to parents of students at the school.

“Our hearts and prayers are with the families of the victims and those that are missing, particularly those of our students. Right now, our priority as a school is to support our students, staff and families,” the school wrote in a statement.

Head of School Maria Reitano could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

Santa Barbara Harbor
Flowers left by James Miranda, a Santa Barbara resident, boater and diver, float in Santa Barbara Harbor.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Local, state and federal investigators are trying to determine exactly what went wrong on the Conception, a 75-foot vessel once described by California Diving News as “California’s crown jewel of live-aboard dive boats.”

Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said he knows the families of the victims are awaiting information about their loved ones. He said officials would do “everything in our power to find out what happened aboard that vessel in the last moments of these family members lives.”

“As this community continues to deal with the unfolding tragedy ... the county fire district is committed to — on behalf of the county of Santa Barbara — expending all necessary means to find out the cause of origin of this fire.”

Victims who had signed up for the dive trip were in their bunks below deck when the fire started. The boat was about 20 yards off the north shore of Santa Cruz Island, part of the Channel Islands off the Ventura County coast. It was set to return to Santa Barbara Harbor on Monday evening.

“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.”

There was a fire-suppression system in the vessel’s engine room, as required by the Coast Guard, and fire extinguishers near the exits. The equipment was all present during the boat’s last inspection, Rochester said.

Officials say there is no indication that any of the people sleeping in the cabins made it out of the fire onto a higher deck. All appear to have been trapped, Brown said.

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

Chris Grossman, president of a Southern California SCUBA club called the Sea Divers, said he was last aboard the Conception about seven years ago for a diving trip. Truth Aquatics, the company that owns Conception and two other boats in its fleet, is the oldest dive boat operation in the state and has a sterling reputation among divers, Grossman said.

“Their boats were always immaculately kept and immaculately run,” he said. “The fact that this happened to this boat is very shocking.”

Rick Miskiv, a diver who was on the Conception in June for a scuba diving trip to film and get underwater photography, echoed Grossman in saying that the boat appeared to be in good condition. It appeared to be well-maintained and the crew was professional. He said the boat was configured with tanks and compressors, and described the barracks as having one stairwell exit to the main deck, entering into the kitchen and eating area. There are windows around the space, and a main exit to the rear of the boat.

The frantic distress call crackled on Coast Guard radios around 3:15 a.m. Monday as flames engulfed the vessel.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday! ... Conception ... north side of Santa Cruz,” a man yelled. “I can’t breathe!”

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.

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.”

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.

Rescuers searched the waters off the Channel Islands as well as the Santa Cruz Island shore, hoping to find survivors but have found only bodies.

Hansen 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 wore only 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.”

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.

The deadly fire rocked the tight-knit diving community in Southern California.

JJ Lambert, 38, lives on a boat in the harbor and said the incident brought back childhood memories of going diving with his father. Associating the activity with such a tragedy was difficult, he said.

He hung a red and white scuba flag at the memorial on Monday night. “We’ll remember you on every dive,” was written across it with a black marker.

Jenny Stafford of Santa Barbara stayed by the memorial all night and said several relatives of victims visited the site.

“A man fell to his knees and sobbed uncontrollably,” Stafford said about the arrival of a victim’s father and sister from Chicago.

Stafford said she does not know how the town will heal.

“You better enjoy this every minute,” she said, pointing to the sun rising over the Pacific Ocean. “We are lucky to be here. This is so shocking.”

NTSB has asked the public to send photos, videos and any other information that could help investigators to witness@ntsb.com.

Times staff writers Colleen Shalby, Hailey Branson-Potts, Dakota Smith, Leila Miller, Brittny Mejia and Jaclyn Cosgrove contributed to this report.


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