All 34 Passengers in Southern California Boat Fire Presumed Dead

By R.J. Johnson - @rickerthewriter

September 3, 2019

All 34 passengers aboard a commercial diving boat that caught fire early Monday morning are presumed dead, authorities said in an update Tuesday morning.

“Search and recovery efforts have ceased,” U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said.

Search efforts at the site where the 75-foot boat Conception caught fire, have transitioned away from a rescue operation posture, and into a recovery effort, Rochester told reporters Tuesday morning.

According to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, at least 20 bodies have been recovered, 11 female and 9 male. Another four to six bodies have been spotted by divers inside the burned and sunken vessel.

Dive teams will continue their work on Tuesday to search and try to recover other bodies, officials said.

Authorities have not yet released any identification of the victims.

Five people, all crew members aboard the diving boat, managed to escape the blaze after jumping into an inflatable boat that they used to get to a nearby vessel, the "Grape Escape." One crew member suffered non-life-threatening injuries.

The Coast Guard said the Conception departed from the Santa Barbara Harbor with 39 people on board on Saturday, with the boat due to return 5 p.m. Monday. The fire was reported just after 3 a.m. while it was still anchored north of Santa Cruz Island.

Authorities have not yet been able to determine a cause for the fire.

"Once we get a little further along, the cause of the fire will be something under investigation," Kroll said.

The crew was probably able to escape because they were awake and above deck when the first first broke out, Rochester said. The cause of the fire is still under investigation with personnel from the National Transportation Safety Board coming on to assist in the investigation of the deadly incident.

One of the first people on the scene was Bob Hansen, who captains the Grape Escape. He told NBC Los Angeles that the entire boat was engulfed in flames when he arrived to help. Hansen managed to rescue the five crew members who had gotten off the vessel, including the captain, with four of the survivors still dressed in their underwear. One of the survivors said his girlfriend was below deck, and that the boat was hosting three birthday parties, including one for a 17-year-old girl who was on board with her parents.

"It's one of those things, you just can't unsee it," Hansen said.

People grieving the loss have begun leaving flowers and candles on the Santa Barbara dock where the Conception was scheduled to dock, Monday night.

Meanwhile, politicians like Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) are calling for an investigation into the deaths of those onboard the vessel.

“It's inconceivable that with all the safety regulations we have in place today, a fire on a boat can lead to the loss of life we saw this morning near Santa Cruz Island,” she said.

“We need an immediate and robust interagency investigation. The Coast Guard, along with officials from Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, are already hard at work. Once personnel from the NTSB and FBI join the effort (Tuesday) we must learn as much as possible about how this happened and how future tragedies can be prevented.”

The commercial diving vessel, Conception, was chartered by Truth Aquatics for a three day diving excursion in the northern Channel Islands area. The vessel is mostly used for large tour groups and made her maiden voyage in 1981. According to the layout of the boat, it can carry 46 people and includes cooking appliances, and a built-in barbeque.

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