Search suspended, 34 presumed dead in California dive-boat fire

A team from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has arrived in California to begin investigating the dive boat fire that is believed to have killed 34 people.

'You couldn't ask for a worse situation': Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown

Search suspended, 34 presumed dead in California dive-boat fire

3 years ago
Duration 2:00
A team from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has arrived in California to begin investigating the dive boat fire that is believed to have killed 34 people.

A team from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has arrived in California to begin investigating the dive boat fire that is believed to have killed 34 people.

Board member Jennifer Homendy said Tuesday that she's "100 per cent confident" investigators will find the cause of the fire aboard the vessel Conception, which caught fire before dawn Monday and sank near Santa Cruz Island off the Southern California coast.

Only five crew members on the boat managed to escape as the fire broke out. The U.S. Coast Guard and law enforcement in California said no one was found alive after flames tore through the boat, as passengers on a recreational scuba diving trip slept below deck. 

The search has been suspended.

Santa Barbara County Bill Brown said at a news conference Tuesday that the bodies of 20 victims have been recovered, and divers have seen between and four and six others in the sunken wreckage. 

Brown said authorities are trying to stabilize the boat that sank in about 18 metres of water so divers can recover those remains.

Brown says the recovered remains include 11 females and nine males, and DNA will be used to identify them.

"You couldn't ask for a worse situation," Brown told reporters.

Rescue personnel return to shore with the victims of the pre-dawn fire. (Kyle Grillot/Reuters)

The fire broke out about 3 a.m. Monday as the Conception was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, about 145 kilometres west of Los Angeles. The dive boat carried 33 passengers and six crew members, though five of the crew sleeping on the top deck were able to escape by jumping off and taking a small boat to safety. Brown said there were apparently several mayday radio calls before dawn on Monday.

The first call may have come from the burning vessel, he said, and subsequent calls may then have come from a nearby boat that picked up the five crew members.

In one radio exchange, a Coast Guard radio communicator asked if people were locked inside the boat and whether the person could get back aboard the Conception and unlock doors. The replies to those questions are not on the recording.

"The call was garbled, it was not that clear, but we were able to get some information out of it to send vessels," said Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney.

Capt. Paul Amaral of the vessel assistance company TowBoatUS also launched a fast boat from Ventura Harbor, but it was some 48 kilometres away. By the time it got there around 5 a.m. a Coast Guard helicopter and a fireboat were on the scene.

The missing and dead are among 39 passengers and crew who had departed Santa Barbara Harbor on Saturday aboard the boat for a Labour Day weekend trip. Pacific Collegiate School, a Northern California charter school for grades 7-12, has confirmed that it had students and parents on board.

Another passenger, marine biologist and veteran diver Kristy Finstad, 41, was identified in a Facebook post by her brother, Brett Harmeling of Houston.

Memorial grows

The 23-metre Conception was on a three-day excursion to the chain of rugged, wind-swept isles that form Channel Islands National Park in the Pacific Ocean west of Los Angeles. The fire broke out as the boat sat anchored in Platt's Harbor off Santa Cruz Island.

The Conception was owned by Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics, founded in 1974. A memorial outside Truth Aquatics in the Santa Barbara Harbor grew Monday night as mourners came to pay their respects.

Dave Reid, who runs an underwater camera manufacturing business with his wife, Terry Schuller, and has travelled on the Conception and two other boats in Truth Aquatics' fleet, said he considered all three among the best and safest. 

A memorial outside Truth Aquatics has continued to grow in the hours since the fire. (Stefanie Dazio/The Associated Press)

"When you see the boats they are always immaculate," he said. "I wouldn't hesitate at all to go on one again. Of all the boat companies, that would be one of the ones I wouldn't think this would happen to." 

Schuller said Truth Aquatics crews have always been meticulous in going over safety instructions at the beginning of every trip she's been on. 

"They tell you where the life jackets are, how to put them on ... the exits, where the fire extinguishers are, on every single trip," she said. "They are the best, the absolute best." 

Both said the sleeping area is comfortable but tight, with bunk beds stacked next to one another on the lowest deck. Coming up to the top deck to get off requires navigating a narrow stairway with only one exit. 

If the fire was fast-moving, Reid said, it's very likely divers couldn't escape and the crew couldn't get to them. 

The NTSB plans to stay at the scene for up to 10 days and will look into safety measures aboard the boat, such as whether it had fire extinguishers, and will interview survivors, first responders, divers and others.

The agency is also asking people who might have photos or videos that could help in the investigation to email them to the board.

Coast Guard records show all safety violations from the last five years were quickly addressed by the boat's owners. Some violations were related to fire safety. A 2016 inspection resulted in owners replacing the heat detector in the galley and one in 2014 cited a leaky fire hose.

The Conception was chartered by Worldwide Diving Adventures, which says on its website that it has been taking divers on such expeditions since the 1970s. 

Andy Taylor, owner of Blue Water Hunter Dive Shop in Santa Barbara, said he discussed dive conditions with several people Friday as they were buying some last-minute things before boarding the Conception. Taylor said he often sends divers to Truth Aquatics for trips and he has friends who have crewed on the Conception. 

A boat named Truth owned by Truth Aquatics, which also owns the commercial diving boat Conception. Truth Aquatics has had past safety violations, but they were all quickly addressed. (Kyle Grillot/Reuters)

He said he was on the phone all day Monday as friends checked to make sure he had not been on the boat. 

"Right now it's a big question of who was on there and who wasn't," he said. "I'm scared to see the list of names, honestly."