At least four people were killed and dozens remained missing after a dive boat fire in southern California. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said, “You couldn’t ask for a worse situation.”
SANTA BARBARA, California — A commercial diving boat with dozens of passengers aboard sank Monday after it caught fire before dawn near Santa Barbara, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
A total of 39 people were on board the boat called Conception: Six crew members and 33 passengers who were asleep on the bottom deck. Five crew members were rescued near Santa Cruz Island, about 30 miles off Santa Barbara.
The others are all feared dead. Four bodies had been recovered near the boat and brought ashore by Monday night, all with injuries consistent with drowning, said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll. Four other bodies had been located at the site but not yet recovered, authorities said.
Late Monday night, Amber Anderson of the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management confirmed to USA TODAY that “additional victims are being received.” However, she declined to offer any additional information about the number of victims, saying that there will be an update at a press conference at 10 a.m. on Tuesday.
“This is probably the worst-case scenario you could possibly have,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said. “You have a vessel that’s on the open sea in the middle of the night. Fire is the scourge of any ship. The majority of the people were the passengers on the ship, and the sleeping compartment was in the bottom deck of the ship so they would’ve been sound asleep when the fire started. … You couldn’t ask for a worse situation.”
‘Nothing can prepare you for that’: Boat owner describes saving distressed crew members after Santa Cruz Island boat fire
Several people are dead and dozens are unaccounted for after a diving boat caught on fire near Santa Barbara, California.
Capt. Monica Rochester of the U.S. Coast Guard said in a Monday press conference at Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, California, that the five individuals who were rescued were sleeping on the top deck of the boat when they woke up. They jumped off and were rescued by a Good Samaritan boat called the Grape Escape.
In audio from a mayday call from the Conception, a Coast Guard dispatcher is heard asking about the passengers’ safety.
“Roger, there are 33 people on board the vessel that’s on fire and they can’t get off,” the dispatcher asks. The response is unintelligible. The dispatcher then asks, “Roger, are they locked inside the boat?”
Considering the situation, “We should all be prepared to move to the worst outcome,” Rochester told reporters.
Authorities have obtained the sign-in sheet for the passengers aboard the vessel, Public Information Officer. Lt. Eric Raney said, but the list does not include ages or hometowns. Officials are still trying to reach passengers’ family members.
About 15 families had visited the family assistance center by Monday afternoon, said Suzanne Grimmesey with Santa Barbara County Department of Behavioral Wellness. Several families came from out of town, including from Northern California.
“People come in in a state of shock, I think, with worry, with questions — perhaps carrying a bit of hope as well,” she said. “When they come in the door, they have a lot of support there for them.”
‘No escape hatch’ for passengers: Read transcript of Santa Cruz boat mayday call
Brown said he does not know if there is a black box aboard the Conception. The initial broadcast did not indicate any explosion sparked the fire, he said, and there is no reason to suspect any criminal activity.
Bob Hansen, owner of the Grape Escape, said he and his wife were sleeping when they were awakened by the five crew members banging on the side of their boat from their lifeboat.
“The flames are probably 30 feet high,” Hansen told USA TODAY of the boat fire. “This is probably one of those things you cannot unsee. It’s very vivid. I can see that thing burning and it’s all the way, right down almost to the water. It was fast.”
The crew members were in shock and several were in tears, Hansen said.
“Nothing can prepare you for that,” he said. “For myself, it was like, ‘I can’t do anything here. I’m freaking helpless.’ It’s like an airplane. What are you going to do after it’s already hit the ground?’’
Around 3:15 a.m., the Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach said a mayday call was overheard via channel 16, according to Coast Guard officials. The “garbled” call was for “an engulfed 75-foot commercial diving vessel with 38 people aboard.”
Rochester said that call indicated the boat was already fully ablaze. By late Monday afternoon, Coast Guard officials said experts were being consulted to determine whether fuel was leaking from the vessel, and how to conduct the salvage operation.
The Conception was scheduled for a three-day trip to San Miguel Island off the Santa Barbara coast, according to local diving operator Truth Aquatics, which operates the boat. According to Truth Aquatics’ schedule, the boat departed at about 4 a.m. Saturday and was expected to return Monday evening.
The excursion, according to the company’s website, promised an island “loaded with color” and filled with “pristine shallow reefs hosting an incredibly diverse collection of sea life.”
‘It isn’t hard to imagine that a fire could have caused tragedy’: California dive-boat fire highlights need for more than one exit from sleeping quarters
The vessel sank 20 yards offshore as fire crews were fighting the blaze, according to a statement by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Two fire boats were on the scene and were able to keep the fire under control, said Capt. Paul Amaral, owner of TowBoat US Ventura & Channel Islands.
“We assisted in getting the boat away from the island,” he said. “What typically happens with a boat fire is the combination of the water from burned hoses, plus the water they’re using to fight the fire, tends to overwhelm the vessel, and this was a wooden boat.”
News media and family members converged Monday morning at the Coast Guard station at Channel Islands Harbor. Among those waiting was James Kohls, brother of a galley cook and deck hand on the Conception.
He said he hadn’t heard from his brother, Mike Kohls, or about his fate, but that the Coast Guard “was going to let me know whether he was one of the survivors that got off.”
He said the situation was “very surreal at the moment” and that “anytime you’re on the ocean, it’s a risk.”
The National Transportation Safety Board was sending a team to investigate the fire.
An official at Island Packers Cruises, which operates a daily boat shuttle from nearby Ventura and Oxnard, California, to the Channel Islands, said the local boating community was “incredibly heartbroken” by the boat fire.
“Any loss in the community is a loss for us all,” said Andrea Mills, Island Packers’ education coordinator. “The boating community locally is very tight knit.
She said she knew Truth Aquatics’ staff to be “very professional and passionate about taking people out there to enjoy” the islands.
Fisherman Jim Colomy said he went to skipper school with company owner Glen Fritzler in 1977. Colomy called Truth Aquatics a “a first-class operation” and said Fritzler was “just one of the good guys” whose business is integral to Santa Barbara Harbor
“His guys were just professional guys,” Colomy said.
Former Truth Aquatics passengers said they had never experienced a problem with the boat company.
Scientist Jacek Jasinski, 50, said he had a number of scuba diving training certificates, including advanced diver, altitude diving and search-and-rescue, with more than 700 dives logged. He said around 100 to 120 of those dives have been with Truth Aquatics.
He called the company “a very known and reputable operator in the scuba diving world.”
“They were our favorite dive operators,” he said.
Attorney Joseph Catmull, 59, last dived with Truth Aquatics in 2006. He said the “boats are probably the nicest in Southern California, and always had a top crew.”
Catmull said there is only one stairway on the passenger deck for divers to enter and exit from. “So it isn’t hard to imagine that a fire could have caused tragedy,” he said.
College professor Tim Xeriland, 49, of Dallas, has also taken a tour with the company. He said the “crew was professional and aimed to please” but the boat interior was small.
“At night, we slept in bunk beds located below deck. The quarters were cramped, but everyone was there to dive, so it seemed fine. In retrospect, I can imagine how dangerous it would be wake in a smoke-filled cabin in the dead of night,” he said. “As I recall, there was only one exit, and in an emergency, there would be a severe bottleneck.”
Fires are a rare cause of death on recreational boating vehicles such as Conception. From 2009 to 2018, 2,534 accidents and 37 deaths — less than 1% of fatalities — were attributed to fires aboard recreational boating vessels, according to U.S. Coast Guard data.
“Our hearts are with the families and loved ones affected by this tragic incident,” tweeted California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday morning. “As we wait to hear more, we are eternally grateful for our heroic first responders that are on site — working to ensure every individual is found.
At Santa Barbara Harbor on Monday afternoon, people dined outdoor at restaurants, licked ice cream as they walked along the water or rode group bikes. But when Coast Guard officials pulled out two body bags to bring to emergency medical personnel, a few tourists and locals stopped to watch.
Santa Barbara resident Mynor Chavez, 29, said he has ridden on similar boats, like many locals, and has never heard of a such a tragedy.
“It could have been any one of us,” he said while looking out at the harbor.
Jennifer Small, a spokeswoman from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, said dive boats are regulated by the Coast Guard and are required to follow “the same safety regulations and requirements” as other vessels.
“When on board a dive boat, however, you’re more likely to be surrounded by other passengers and crew who have additional safety training in first aid, CPR, scuba diving emergencies, along with specialized medical response kits and oxygen kits,” she said.
The Truth Aquatics website specifies that “each person prints his or her name on the boat manifest upon arrival, and that “it is the individual’s responsibility to be sure everyone in the party is onboard” before each departure.
BREAKING NEWS: The Coast Guard has launched multiple rescue assets along with assets from local agencies to assist more than 30 people in distress on a 75ft boat near Santa Cruz Island. More details will be available later as this operation continues.
— USCG Los Angeles (@USCGLosAngeles) September 2, 2019
Charles Russell, 57, a diving instructor who has been on Conception multiple times, said such informal procedures are standard across the industry, adding that crew members usually “count before and after each dive.”
The boat had a maximum bunk capacity for 46 people — with 13 double bunks and 20 single bunks. Rafts and life jackets were available for 110 people, as well as a full first aid kit and oxygen tanks. The boat was generally docked at Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara.
“The vessel has been in full compliance,” Rochester said during the press conference when asked if the operator had a history of violations.
Coast Guard records show inspections conducted last February and in August 2018 found no deficiencies. Earlier inspections found some safety violations related to fire safety.
A 2016 inspection resulted in owners replacing the heat detector in the galley and one in 2014 cited a leaky fire hose. Records show all safety violations from the last five years were quickly addressed by the boat’s owners.
The boat was launched in 1981 and was built in Long Beach, according to Truth Aquatics’ website.
The Conception is one of a fleet of three operated by Truth Aquatics, along with the company’s first vessel Truth and the Vision, which was added in 1985.
Contributing: Jorge Ortiz, Chris Woodyard, Steve Reilly and Steve Coogan, USA TODAY; Cheri Carlson, Shane Newell, Gretchen Wenner and Tom Kisken, The Ventura County Star; The Associated Press
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