Additional Bodies Recovered From Dive Boat Fire Disaster Near Santa Cruz Island

A boat carrying 39 people caught fire off the coast of Santa Cruz Island on Sept. 2, 2019. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

A devastating fire that engulfed a dive boat carrying 33 passengers and six crew members while it was anchored off the Ventura County coast early Monday morning is now under investigation. Five crew members survived the deadly fire.

It began with a 3:15 a.m. mayday call from a 75-foot vessel named the Conception. Fire boats dispatched to the remote dive site in the Channel Islands National Park first battled the fire on the wooden boat and then shifted to recovery efforts as no more survivors were located.


Get the latest updates: Conception Boat Fire: What We Know About The Tragedy Off Santa Cruz Island


By 4 p.m. Monday, authorities reported that four bodies had been recovered, two adult men and two adult women, and four additional bodies had been located on the ocean floor where the boat sank in about 65 feet of water.

Another 15 or so bodies were brought to shore late Monday, Santa Barbara Fire Department's Lee Waldron confirmed to LAist.

[Update Tuesday, 10:20 a.m.: Authorities said at a news conference that a total of 20 victims bodies had been recovered. Four to six additional bodies were visible in the wreckage but had not yet been removed. An earlier version of this story reported 25 bodies had been recovered and nine other people remained missing, based on an Associated Press report late Monday.]

The Conception, on a three-day scuba diving trip, was anchored off Platts Harbor on the north side of Santa Cruz Island, a popular Southern California dive site.

A boat with more than 30 people on board caught on fire off the coast of Ventura County on Sept. 2, 2019. (Ventura County Fire Department)

Five people were rescued by a good Samaritan vessel anchored nearby before the boat sank about 20 yards off the island's shore. The boat still had a portion of the bow sticking out of the water, according to Coast Guard officials.

The five people rescued were crew members who were awake and on the bridge at the time of the incident, then jumped overboard, Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester said in a morning press briefing. The passengers were below deck asleep when the fire broke out, she said.

A sixth crew member did not make it off the boat, authorities said.

Four bodies were recovered soon after the Conception sunk at about 7:20 a.m. At an afternoon press briefing, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said they would have to be identified through DNA. Other authorities said that was due to burns on the bodies, but stressed a cause of death had not yet been determined.

Officials said they have a list of the passengers and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department is working to notify next of kin.

Dive teams in the water reported the sunken vessel remained unstable, making recovery conditions difficult.

Search and rescue operations were expected to continue into the the next morning.

"This is probably the worst-case scenario you could possibly have," said Brown, noting the combination of a fire breaking out on a boat in a remote location in the middle of the night.

Brown added that there were no initial reports of an explosion aboard the ship. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

EARLY MORNING MAYDAY

Paul Amaral is a captain with TowBoatUS Ventura, which he likened to "the AAA of the water." His was one of the first vessels on the scene after the mayday call went out early Monday, arriving about an hour after the fire was reported.

"When I first got there, there was one firefighting boat on scene that was dousing the flames," he told KPCC Monday afternoon. "The boat was drifting towards the island and onto the rock, so I hooked onto the boat pulled it away from the island, and a second fire boat then showed up, and they both together fought the fire to control the flames."

Amaral's job was to keep the Conception in place while firefighters worked to douse the flames. He has been involved in several boat fire rescues, but couldn't speculate on what caused the Conception to catch fire and sink.

"The problem with fighting a boat fire is that you can't put unlimited amounts of water onto the boat; that in itself causes the boat to sink," Amaral said. "So they use foam and they use limited amounts of water to try and control the flames."

After the Conception sunk, Amaral said his vessel helped emergency responders recover four bodies from the water, but they didn't find anyone else while he was on the scene.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department was leading the rescue/recovery operation. The area was being searched with dive teams, boats and helicopters.

A family assistance center was established at Earl Warren Showgrounds at 3400 Calle Real in Santa Barbara to provide family and friends of victims information, support, mental health counseling and other resources. It's open through 8 p.m. Monday and reopens at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

Psychologist Maryann Evans arrived there Monday afternoon to provide counseling. She's volunteered her services during other traumatic incidents, including the Isla Vista shooting in 2014 and the mudslides in Montecito after the Thomas Fire.

"We have an incredibly resilient community," Evans said. "We are here to support our familes, our neighbors and our friends."

WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE BOAT

This image, shared by a former client of Truth Aquatics, shows the Conception, which caught fire and sank off the coast of Santa Cruz Island on Monday, Sept. 2, 2019. (Courtesy photo)

The Conception was operated by Truth Aquatics, a Santa Barbara-based charter company that provided a variety of ocean excursions, including whale watching, lobster diving and fishing. The company operates two other ships, Truth and Vision.

According to an online trip listing, the Conception was on a three-day Labor Day weekend trip to allow divers a "unique opportunity to explore the pinnacles of San Miguel Island."

The boat was scheduled to have left Santa Barbara at 4 a.m. Saturday and return Monday afternoon, Brown said.

The advertised capacity of the Conception's bunk room was 46 people, including both double and single bunks, some in stacks of three, and a shower room. Expedition quarters like these are typically known for being tight.

The U.S. Coast guard inspects boats annually. The Conception had been in "full compliance," according to Rochester.

A screenshot from the website of Truth Aquatics displays the schematic of the bunk room of the Conception, a diving vessel that sunk off the Ventura County coast near the Channel Islands on Monday, Sept. 2, 2019. (Courtesy Truth Aquatics)

According to World Diving Adventure's website, the boat was built in 1981 in Long Beach and measured 79 feet in total length. The galley included "all appliances necessary for food preparation and is waterproof for divers in wetsuits. Onboard built-in Bar-B-Que."

The boat specifications also say it was equipped with rafts and life jackets for 110 passengers and a fire suppression system.

Flowers float in the space where the dive boat Conception had been docked. The boat caught fire in the early morning of Monday, Sept. 2 while on an expedition with 34 passengers and five crew aboard. (Sharon McNary/ LAist)

Carpinteria resident Tony Gonzales, a friend of a one-time crew member of the Truth Aquatics diving ships, brought flowers to Santa Barbara Harbor and threw them into the water as a gesture of respect and mourning for the lives potentially lost.

"It's just a bad situation," Gonzales said, describing the crew as "very dedicated people."

Jim Daly, a Santa Barbara resident, was a frequent passenger on the Conception, chartering more than 10 dives on the vessel over the years.

"My experience was top-notch," he said. "That's why we kept going back."

Daly said his wife recently gave him a gift certificate to take another dive on the ship. He still has it in his desk at work.

"It's just going to be horrible to hear what actually happened," he said.

FEDERAL INVESTIGATION UNDERWAY

Santa Barbara Search and Rescue workers, along with Santa Barbara County Sheriff's officials, move a recovered body on the dock at Santa Barbara Harbor on Monday, Sept. 2, 2019. The body was recovered near where the diving vessel Conception caught fire and sank before dawn Monday morning. (Daniel Dreifuss/AP)

The National Transportation Safety Board has dispatched a "go-team" to investigate the incident, the agency reported. The team is designed to "begin the investigation of a major accident at the accident scene, as quickly as possible," according to the NTSB website.

NTSB is leading the investigation in coordination with the U.S. Coast Guard, according to board member Jennifer Homendy.

"I have full confidence that the team will get to the botton of how this occured, why it occured and how to prevent it from happening again," she said.

Investigators will be analyzing a variety of factors, including vessel operation and maintenance records, available equipment and crew training, including required firefighting training, Homendy explained. The NTSB will also investigate if proper procedures were followed by crewmembers to rescue passengers when the fire broke out.

Maya Upton, of Santa Barbara, places flowers at outside of the Sea Landing at Santa Barbara Harbor on Monday, Sept. 2, 2019. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)

The on-scene investigation could take up to 10 days, while the full investigation may take 12 to 18 months to complete, Homendy said.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein called the incident an unimaginable tragedy and voiced her support for an interagency investigation.

"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," Feinstein said in a statement. "We must know what fire-suppression systems and other emergency equipment are in place on these boats and whether they were in working order on the Conception.

"And we need to understand exactly how the crew was trained and, if they were awake and above-deck, why they were unable to alert or help rescue passengers," she added.

This story is developing. Check back for updates.

Alyssa Jeong Perry, Brianna Flores, Itxy Quintanilla, Lita Martinez, Megan Erwin, Megan Garvey, Melissa Leu, Ryan Fonseca and Sharon McNary contributed to this story.


UPDATES:

11:24 p.m.: This article was updated with the recovery of additional bodies from the scene.

4:31 p.m.: This article was updated with information from a 4 p.m. press conference.

3:51 p.m.: This article was updated information from an interview with a tow boat captain who was one of the first on the scene.

3:16 p.m.: This article was updated information from an interview with a psychologist at the family assistance center.

2:36 p.m.: This article was updated information from an interview with an NTSB official and statements from Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Gov. Gavin Newsom.

1:38 p.m.: This article was updated with weather conditions.

12:40 p.m.: This article was updated with an interview with a frequent diver on the Conception.

11:41 a.m.: This article was updated with information about the NTSB investigation underway.

11:21 a.m.: This article was updated with new reporting from AP, an interview from Santa Barbara Harbor and an updated family assistance center location.

10:44 a.m.: This article was updated with an announced reunification center in Santa Barbara.

9:33 a.m.: This article was updated with new information from a morning press briefing.

8:56 a.m.: This article was updated with details about the rescue operation and where the boat sank.

8:39 a.m.: This article was updated with details about the diving excursion and the Conception.

8:02 a.m.: This article was updated with details about the timing of the fire and rescues.

This article was originally published at 7:43 a.m.