As officials search for the final victim of the worst maritime disaster in modern California history, the U.S. Coast Guard hopes to soon raise the sunken Conception boat where 34 died from Santa Barbara Channel.
Officials planned to begin the process Friday, but that was put off because of weather conditions and safety concerns.
“The unified command will continue to monitor weather conditions and resume operations when it is safe to do so. Authorities will remain on scene to enforce the safety zone around the site,” the Coast Guard said.
Of the 34 victims, 33 bodies have been recovered. Officials hope towing the boat could help find that final victim.
The fire broke out early Monday morning during a Labor Day weekend diving expedition, trapping the victims, who were sleeping. Five crew members who were above deck at the time were able to escape and said the fire was too intense to get anyone else out.
A preliminary investigation into the blaze has suggested serious safety deficiencies aboard the Conception, including the lack of a “roaming night watchman” who is required to be awake and alert passengers in the event of a fire or other dangers, according to several law enforcement sources familiar with the inquiry.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, who is also the coroner, said Friday that a pathologist determined traditional autopsies would not be conducted on the victims.
“Our pathologist is convinced the victims were victims of smoke inhalation,” he said. “It will likely be the cause of death.”
Brown said he consulted with local, state and federal authorities before making the decision to not conduct autopsies. External examination and toxicology samples were taken from each victim, he said. The final ruling on the causes of death will not come until a formal cause of the fire is established, he added.
“We’re looking to determine what happened,” he said. “A criminal element to that is always a possibility. At this point, no one has been charged criminally. It has not turned into a criminal investigation at this point.”
Coroner’s officials employed a rapid DNA analysis tool that compares genetic profiles of the victims with family samples collected using a cheek swab. DNA samples have been collected from relatives across the country and from as far away as India and Japan. FBI field offices across the globe have helped collect samples, Brown said, adding that samples are still on the way to Santa Barbara.
At the vigil Friday night, chaplains and an official from Santa Barbara County’s Department of Behavioral Wellness spoke about the need to heal after the tragedy and how the sea can be a source of comfort. They stood in front of an arrangement of 34 scuba cylinders — one for each victim.
Mourners placed long-stemmed carnations in a basket as Jackson Gillies, 20, strummed his guitar and sang “Amazing Grace.” Glen Fritzler, the owner of Truth Aquatics, which operated the Conception, was flanked by family members of victims and company employees as he laid down a carnation and tried unsuccessfully to choke back tears. He was embraced by dozens in the crowd.
Stanley Payne, 79, whose wife’s sister was on board the Conception with several other relatives, said earlier Friday that he feels angry that no passengers were able to escape. But he also does not blame the five crew members who jumped off the boat.
“If I had been in their place, I don’t think I could have done anything different,” he said.