‘It will live with me forever’: Coast Guard officer recalls 4 days of duty at site of dive boat tragedy

Lt. j.g. Caroline Miller, right, commanding officer of the Coast Guard cutter Narwhal, and Seaman Thomas Roberts are pictured with the 87-foot vessel at its Corona del Mar berth.
Lt. j.g. Caroline Miller, right, commanding officer of the Coast Guard cutter Narwhal, and Seaman Thomas Roberts are pictured with the 87-foot vessel at its Corona del Mar berth.
(David C. Henley)

Before dawn on Labor Day, Lt. j.g. Caroline Miller, commanding officer of the Newport Beach-based Coast Guard cutter Narwhal, received an urgent radio message. It was enough to strike dread in the heart of any mariner.

The communique ordered the 87-foot Narwhal to steam at full speed to Santa Cruz Island, about 30 miles off the Santa Barbara coast, to participate in the search for survivors of a fire aboard the commercial dive boat Conception. The boat had burst into flames about 3:15 a.m. and was engulfed in seconds while anchored at Platt’s Harbor off the island’s north shore.

Miller assembled her crew, and in about two hours the twin-diesel-powered Narwhal reached the 75-foot Conception, which had sunk stern-first in about 65 feet of water, with part of its bow visible above the surface.

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.

“When we arrived on scene, we learned that five of the six Conception crew members had managed to escape the carnage and paddle a dinghy to a nearby fishing boat, the Grape Escape. But the 33 divers and one crew member who had been trapped in the berthing compartments on the lower deck had not been accounted for,” she said.

So the Narwhal and its 8-foot, rigid-hull inflatable craft NAR-1, which often is used in pursuit of suspected drug smugglers and illegal immigrants and to rescue boaters in distress, joined the search and rescue operation.

It wasn’t long before the remains of 15 people who had been aboard the Conception were discovered in the water. The search continued, but more bodies were discovered by the following night. By then, the Conception had sunk to the ocean floor, upside down.

The total death toll was 34.

During the search operation, and later the retrieval of bodies, the Narwhal, the only Coast Guard cutter dispatched to the disaster, also was the onsite command and control ship. The assignment included coordinating the movements of military and law enforcement rescue vessels, helicopters and airplanes representing various local, county, state and federal agencies.

The Narwhal’s crew also was tasked with establishing and managing a mile-wide safety zone around the Conception wreckage to keep pleasure craft and other unauthorized vessels from disrupting search and salvage operations.

Though Coast Guard officers and enlisted personnel are thoroughly trained in search, rescue and retrieval of human remains, “You really can’t prepare yourself for tragedies such as the Conception holocaust,” Miller said.

“I constantly think of those aboard the Conception that day,” she said. “They must have been happy people before they lost their lives. They were to return home that day following a three-day dive adventure. They had celebrated the birthday of one of their fellow passengers. But the sea can be isolating and unforgiving. It is a paradox that the Conception was surrounded by water, which is used to put out fires.”

She praised her crew as “professional and phenomenal. We didn’t know what to expect when we arrived at the disaster scene off Santa Cruz Island. We had several responsibilities at the tragedy and constantly had to shift gears. All of my crew were strong performers.”

The Narwhal, named for a whale that has a large sword-like tusk, returned Thursday night to its home port on Bayside Drive in Corona del Mar adjacent to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Newport Beach lifeguard maritime fleets following four days of duty at the Conception site.

Early Monday, the cutter again left port, this time for patrols of the water off Southern California and possibly Mexico.

Miller, 25, is a New Jersey native and Coast Guard Academy graduate who spent a year in Bahrain as a seagoing Coast Guard fleet operations officer before her appointment as skipper of the Narwhal.

“I may never again face an assignment equal to what my crew and I experienced at the Conception tragedy,” she said. “It will live with me forever.”

David C. Henley, a resident of Newport Beach, is a contributor to Times Community News.

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