Conception Boat Fire: Here's The Latest On The Tragedy Off Santa Cruz Island
Recovery efforts are continuing near Santa Cruz Island after a dive boat named Conception caught fire and sank early Monday with 34 people aboard.
As of Wednesday morning, the remains of 33 victims have been recovered and a search is underway for the remaining body, according to U.S. Coast Guard officials.
The intense fire aboard the ship spread rapidly and authorities believe 33 passengers and one crew member were trapped in their sleeping quarters on the lower deck. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Tuesday it appeared a stairwell and escape hatch were both blocked by fire.
Here's what else we know so far.
FROM SEARCH TO RECOVERY
At 9:40 a.m. Tuesday, after nearly 24 hours on the scene, the U.S. Coast Guard suspended the search for survivors, USCG Captain Monica Rochester said. Authorities are now working on a plan to safely salvage the vessel and recover the 14 remaining victims.
Four to six additional bodies were located in the wreckage Monday night, but the sunken ship is currently inverted upside down on the sea floor, creating a hazardous situation for divers. Authorities will attempt to stabilize the boat in an effort to search the wreckage for the additional victims and recover their bodies, according to Sheriff Brown.
"We want to make sure that this process is done safely and methodically," he said.
Brown also said the five surviving crew members gave written statements Monday and would be interviewed Tuesday.
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE VICTIMS
The sheriff's department has a list of passengers from the Conception and have been working to notify the victims' families. Sheriff Brown said four families have yet to be reached Tuesday. The majority of the passengers appear to be from the Bay Area, he added.
Brown said many, if not all of the victims, were badly burned in the fire, meaning the remains will have to be identified through DNA testing. Authorities are in the process of collecting DNA samples from family members and will create profiles based on those samples.
A special team from the U.S. Department of Justice is assisting local officials with a rapid DNA analysis tool to speed up the identification process, Brown said, but it's unclear how long that process will take.
The Santa Barbara County Coroner is handling the remains with assistance from the Los Angeles County coroner's office. No autopsies have been performed as of Tuesday morning, officials said.
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.
EARLY MORNING FIRE
Conception's 33 passengers and 6 crew members were on a three-day excursion in the Channel Islands. Early Monday morning, the vessel was anchored off Platts Harbor on the north side of Santa Cruz Island, a popular Southern California dive site located about 24 miles off the Santa Barbara coast.
A mayday call sent at about 3:15 a.m. Monday reported a raging fire on the vessel. Five crew members, including the captain, were awake and on the bridge at the time of the incident, then jumped overboard, authorities said. The passengers were below deck asleep when the blaze broke out.
The five crew members were rescued by a good Samaritan boat anchored nearby. A sixth crew member did not make it off the ship, authorities said.
"This is probably the worst-case scenario you could possibly have," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters Monday, noting the combination of a fire breaking out on a boat in a remote location in the middle of the night.
Two boats from the Ventura County Fire Department were the first on scene and found the wooden vessel completely engulfed in flames. U.S. Coast Guard boats also responded and worked to douse the fire.
But at about 7:20 a.m., the boat sank in about 60 feet of water. Four bodies were recovered shortly after the vessel went down, described only as two adult men and two adult women.
Search and rescue teams responded with helicopters, boats and divers and located another four bodies on the ocean floor Monday. Concerns over the tide and the stability of the sunken boat hampered recovery efforts that afternoon, but as crews worked into the night, 16 more bodies were recovered and brought to shore.
Authorities are investigating where the fire started and what caused it, but could not confirm media reports of an explosion on the ship.
"There's no indication at this point in the investigation that there was an explosion that preceded this fire or this event," Brown told reporters Tuesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board has dispatched a team to investigate the incident.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the fire and plans to release a preliminary report within 10 days. The final report usually takes between 12 and 24 months. The Coast Guard also conduct its own investigation.
Wednesday was the NTSB's first full day on scene and during a Wednesday afternoon press conference, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said it was an "extremely productive day."
NTSB investigators have interviewed the vessel owner and operator, the 2nd galley, the 2nd captain, a deckhand and the vessel's captain. Homendy said these "were very cooperative, lengthy, multi-hour, detailed interviews."
Alcohol testing was conducted on four of the five surviving crew members and the alcohol results were all negative. (One person could not be alcohol tested because they were being taken to the hospital.) Drug testing was done on all five survivors and those results are still pending.
They are scheduling more interviews for tomorrow and future days including with the 1st galley, the owners of the good Samaritan vessels who came to the Conception's aid, Coast Guard inspectors, first responders and current and past employees of Truth Aquatics.
NTSB investigators have also asked for a variety of records including Coast Guard recordings, 911 dispatch records, maintenance training records, licensing information, operation manuals (if they exist), information on fire protection and engineering systems and an inspection history of the vessel, among other documents.
"This is going to be a very lengthy, detailed and comprehensive investigation," Homendy said on Wednesday.
Investigators today went to see Vision, it's one of three vessels operated by Truth Aquatics and is similar to Conception although it's not exactly the same.
NTSB Board Member Jennifer Homendy and USCG Capt. Jason Neubauer tour the berthing area of small passenger vessel Vision, a similar vessel to Conception. pic.twitter.com/Qc7qHbCMKD— NTSB_Newsroom (@NTSB_Newsroom) September 4, 2019
Vehicles of the size of the Conception aren't required to have a black box on board, according to NTSB Investigator-In-Charge Adam Tucker, and they have not received any indication that the ship had installed one voluntarily.
The Conception was not required to have sprinklers installed, U.S. Coast Guard Captain Jason Neubauer confirmed.
NTSB teams are documenting the wreckage, which is currently submerged under 60 to 65 feet of water and inverted. "We are using side scan sonar before it is moved. We want as much video and digital images as we can get before the vessel is moved," Homendy said at Wednesday's press conference. She said the NTSB is hopeful that the vessel will be able to be raised soon.
The NTSB plans to be on scene for 7 to 10 days collecting evidence, but will not be determining the cause of the fire while on scene, Homendy said. They do plan to provide factual information ahead of their report as it becomes available. She also noted that they have in the past provided urgent safety recommendations in the middle of an investigation and that they won't wait for the investigation to end in order to do that.
The NTSB is asking the public for their assistance, seeking photos, videos, and any other information that people believe will help the safety investigation. Anyone with that information can email them at email@example.com.
The NTSB team will examine the vessel itself, the crew, and the conditions they were operating in. That includes if crew members had undergone firefighter training and what emergency supplies were on board, such as life vests, fire extinguishers and life boats.
Homendy said she was 100 percent confident that investigators will determine the cause of the fire, why it occurred, how it occurred, and what it will take to prevent it from happening again.
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE CONCEPTION
The Conception was owned and 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 79-foot ship was built in Long Beach and first launched in 1981, according to Truth Aquatics website. The company operates two other boats, Truth and Vision.
The vessel has three decks, authorities explained Tuesday: the lower deck is the passenger sleeping quarters, the middle deck contains the galley, or kitchen, and the top deck houses the crew quarters and the ship's bridge.
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," according to an online trip listing. It was scheduled to have left Santa Barbara at 4 a.m. Saturday and return Monday afternoon, Brown said.
The U.S. Coast Guard inspects boats annually and the Conception was "fully compliant" in its most recent inspection, according to Captain Rochester. The vessel was equipped with smoke detectors, along with fixed and portable firefighting systems, per federal regulations. The boat specifications also say it was equipped with rafts and life jackets for 110 passengers.
Several people, including friends of former crew members and frequent passengers on the Conception told LAist that the company had a strong safety record and a top-notch crew.
This story is developing. Check back for updates.
Ryan Fonseca, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Brianna Flores, Itxy Quintanilla, Lita Martinez, Megan Erwin, Megan Garvey, Melissa Leu, Sharon McNary, and Mike Roe contributed to this story.
Wednesday, Sept. 4, 8:40 a.m.: This article was updated with information from the U.S. Coast Guard about the recovery efforts.
3:44 p.m. This article was updated with information from a National Transportation Safety Board press conference.
2:20 p.m. This article was updated with information about two vigils planned for Thursday.
11:37 a.m. This article was updated with additional details about the Conception.
11:15 a.m. This article was updated with information provided by authories during Tuesday morning's press conference.
This article was originally published at 8:35 a.m.