Rescuers have suspended their search off the coast of Santa Cruz Island for passengers who were trapped aboard the Conception when the dive boat caught fire and sank early Monday, saying there are no signs of additional survivors.
As of Tuesday morning, the remains of 20 people — 11 female and 9 male — have been found. Fourteen people are still missing. Between four and six victims were seen by the divers still in the wreckage, but they were unable to be recovered before nightfall, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.
Five crew members, who had been awake and jumped overboard, survived the devastating fire. Officials expressed little hope of finding anyone else alive. “It is never an easy decision to suspend search efforts,” said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester. “We know this is a very difficult time for family and friends of the victims.”
Local, state and federal investigators are trying to determine exactly what went wrong on the Conception, a 75-foot vessel once described by California Diving News as “California’s crown jewel of live-aboard dive boats.”
Victims who had signed up for a $665, three-day dive excursion were in their bunks below deck when the fire started. The boat was about 20 yards off the north shore of Santa Cruz Island, part of the Channel Islands off the Ventura County coast. It was set to return to Santa Barbara Harbor on Monday evening. Thirty-nine people were on board when the fire broke out.
“Most everybody was asleep,” said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, noting the combination of remote location, rapidly spreading fire and the victims’ vulnerable position on the boat. “You couldn’t ask for a worse situation.”
It was still dark early Tuesday as several fishermen carted equipment to the dock at the Santa Barbara Harbor, where the Conception had departed days earlier. The men glanced at a row of glowing candles, each lit for a victim of one of California’s deadliest sea tragedies.
Mourners hung several dozen white, yellow and red flowers on a metal fence on the approach to the Sea Landing Dock. The words “Fair winds and following seas; we’ll remember you on every dive,” were written on a flag signifying that a diver was in the water. A message written on a pair of blue fins read, “We love you Conception.”
A young woman, who would give only her first name — Olivia — visited the makeshift memorial at the harbor. She said her 26-year-old older sister, whom she declined to name, was the sixth crew member aboard the Conception.
Her family called around frantically on Monday, she said, only to learn the worst late in the day: Her sister was below deck when the fire broke out and didn’t survive, she said. “It makes no sense,” she said, her voice breaking. “It’s not fair — not fair at all.”
Olivia hugged a woman who had set a bouquet of flowers against the fence at the harbor and walked away, a gaggle of television cameras trailing after her. Two students from Pacific Collegiate School, a public charter school in Santa Cruz, are among the missing, according to parents of students at the school.
“Our hearts and prayers are with the families of the victims and those that are missing, particularly those of our students. Right now, our priority as a school is to support our students, staff and families,” the school wrote in a statement.
Head of School Maria Reitano could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday. Chris Grossman, president of a Southern California SCUBA club called the Sea Divers, said he was last aboard the Conception about seven years ago for a diving trip. Truth Aquatics, the company that owns Conception and two other boats in its fleet, is the oldest dive boat operation in the state and has a sterling reputation among divers, Grossman said.
“Their boats were always immaculately kept and immaculately run,” he said. “The fact that this happened to this boat is very shocking.” The frantic distress call crackled on Coast Guard radios around 3:15 a.m. Monday as flames engulfed the vessel. “Mayday, mayday, mayday! … Conception … north side of Santa Cruz,” a man yelled. “I can’t breathe!”
Around that time, surviving crew members woke Shirley Hansen as they pounded frantically on the side of her nearby fishing boat, the Grape Escape. They had paddled over in a dinghy, some of them injured. Two crew members jumped back into the dinghy in hopes of rescuing others. “But they came back and there was no one that they found,” Hansen said.
Hansen said it had been a quiet night in the cove in Platts Harbor. She and her husband, Bob, had spent the day on the water, cooked a calico bass she had caught and gone to bed. The Madera couple were unaware of the Conception, anchored about 200 yards away. They thought they were alone in the cove.
She described the pounding that awoke them as “horrific.” “Our boat is very well made,” she said. “Having that sound come through [showed] they were very in need of help.” One crewman said his girlfriend was trapped aboard. Another said the Conception had celebrated the birthdays of three passengers — including that of a 17-year-old girl aboard with her parents — just hours before.
Hansen said there was so much smoke pouring from the Conception that she needed an inhaler. She said two of the crew members who made it off the dive boat had injuries to their legs. Some wore only underwear. One of the crew members gave his name as Jerry and identified himself as the captain.
“As it was burning, there would be explosions going off every couple of minutes,” Bob Hansen said. “It was probably some of the dive tanks exploding. It made me feel so helpless.” Fire crews rushed to extinguish the boat, which sank about 7:20 a.m. Monday and now lies inverted on the ocean floor, about 60 feet down.
Jenny Stafford of Santa Barbara stayed by the memorial all night and said several relatives of victims visited the site. “A man fell to his knees and sobbed uncontrollably,” Stafford said about the arrival of a victim’s father and sister from Chicago. Stafford said she does not know how the town will heal. “You better enjoy this every minute,” she said, pointing to the sun rising over the Pacific Ocean. “We are lucky to be here. This is so shocking.”