Thirty-four passengers on California dive-boat presumed dead following fire
California has been struck by a sudden, massive tragedy early Monday morning after the dive-boat Conception spontaneously caught fire off the northern coast of Santa Cruz Island at 3:15 a.m.
Rescue workers searched all morning for possible survivors but have only managed to rescue five crewmembers. It is believed that many of the other passengers were sleeping when the boat caught fire. There were 33 passengers and 3 crewmembers aboard the Conception.
“The surviving crew members sought refuge on a fishing boat moored nearby, banging on the side to wake up Bob Hansen and his wife, who were sleeping onboard,” reports Global News.
“When we looked out, the other boat was totally engulfed in flames, from stem to stern,” Hansen told the New York Times. “There were these explosions every few beats. You can’t prepare yourself for that. It was horrendous.”
According to the Washington Post, 26 are confirmed dead and 20 of the bodies have been recovered; however, all 34 people who are still unaccounted for have been presumed dead.
The damage to the victims’ bodies has been horrific, and rapid DNA testing and cross referencing with family members was needed to identify each.
“The Coast Guard on Tuesday announced that it has called off further operations to find survivors, meaning the final toll likely be all 34 people who were believed to have gone down with the ship,” reports the Washington Post. “While divers work Tuesday to make the wreckage safe to extract more bodies, medical examiners will begin taking DNA samples from the relatives of victims.”
“This is probably the worst-case scenario you can possibly have,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters. “You have a vessel that’s on the open sea, that is in the middle of the night. I mean, it’s 3:30 in the morning.
“There was an extraordinarily hot fire and the bodies do exhibit signs of extreme thermal damage.”
Ventura County firefighters reached the boat, 20 miles off the coast of California, within 15 minutes. The entire boat was engulfed in flames by this point.
United States Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester says that crews and aircraft searched for a 24-hour period before suspending their investigation, as it was unlikely anyone would be found given the nature of the disaster.
“It is never an easy decision to suspend search efforts,” she said. “We know that this is a very difficult time for families and friends of the victims.”
CNN has provided a brief transcript of a mayday call between a Coast Guard dispatcher and the Conception’s captain; however, only the dispatcher’s side could be heard.
“The captain apparently reports a fire and provides a location,” reports CNN. The dispatcher can be heard saying, “And there’s 33 people on board the vessel that’s on fire, they can’t get off? … Roger, are they locked inside the boat? … Roger, can you get back on board and unlock the boat, unlock the door so they can get off? … Roger, you don’t have any firefighting gear at all? No fire extinguishers or anything?”
“Was that all the crew that jumped off,” the dispatcher asks, “… Roger, is the vessel fully engulfed right now … Roger, and there’s no escape hatch for any of the people on board?”
Eventually, he says, “I can’t breathe.”
Regarding he call between the dispatcher and the captain, Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney said, “The call was garbled, it was not that clear, but we were able to get some information out of it to send vessels.”
It still isn’t clear what started the fire. However, CBC says that Coast Guard records have shown some safety violations over the last five year, including owners needing to replace a heat detector in 2016 and a leaky fire hose in 2014.
Dave Reid, an owner of an underwater camera manufacturing business, and his wife Terry Schuller have both travelled on the Conception and believes it was among the safest of vessels.
“When you see the boats, they are always immaculate,” Reid 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.”
“They tell you where the life jackets are, how to put them on … the exits, where the fire extinguishers are, on every single trip,” Schuller said. “They are the best, the absolute best.”
The 75-boat is owned by Truth Aquatics and was chartered by Worldwide Diving Adventures. At the time of the fire, Worldwide Diving Adventures had said on its website the Conception was on a three-day excursion to the Channel Islands, due back in Santa Barbara early Monday evening.