California boat fire: Search suspended, 34 presumed dead

Coast Guard says no one has been found alive after flames tore through dive boat after Southern California coast.

    In this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, a dive boat is engulfed in flames after a deadly fire broke out on board the commercial scuba diving vessel off the Southern California Coast, [Handout/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/AP Photo]
    In this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, a dive boat is engulfed in flames after a deadly fire broke out on board the commercial scuba diving vessel off the Southern California Coast, [Handout/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/AP Photo]

    US officials said on Tuesday that 34 people died after a boat packed with scuba divers caught fire near an island off the Southern California coast and they have called off search efforts for survivors.

    The United States Coast Guard and law enforcement said no one has been found alive after flames tore through the dive boat early Monday as passengers on a recreational scuba diving trip slept below deck.

    The Conception carried 33 passengers and six crew members, and only five of the crew sleeping on the top deck were able to escape by jumping off and taking a small boat to safety. Investigators have not yet determined how the fire broke out.

    Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said the bodies of 20 victims have been recovered and divers have seen between four and six others in the sunken wreckage. He said authorities are trying to stabilise the boat that sank in about 18 metres (60 feet) of water so divers can recover those remains.

    Most need to be identified by DNA analysis and officials are collecting samples from family members, Brown said.

    California boat fire
    Jennifer Stafford attends to a makeshift memorial near Truth Aquatics as the search continues for those missing in a pre-dawn fire that sank a commercial diving boat off Santa Barbara, California [Mike Blake/Reuters]

    The missing and dead were among 39 passengers and crew who had departed Santa Barbara Harbor on Saturday on board the boat for a Labor Day weekend trip.

    'Garbled' distress call

    The fire broke out on Monday as the Conception was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, about 145km (90 miles) west of Los Angeles. The crew appeared to quickly call for help. 

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    "The call was garbled, it was not that clear, but we were able to get some information out of it to send vessels," Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney said.

    Captain Paul Amaral of the vessel assistance company TowBoatUS also launched a fast boat from Ventura Harbor, but it was some 48km (30 miles) away. By the time it got there, a Coast Guard helicopter and a fireboat were on scene.

    Amaral said he first searched the water and shoreline, then turned back to the Conception, which was adrift. He attached a line and pulled it into deeper water so the fireboats could reach it.

    "We launched that boat knowing that the vessel was on fire, lots of people aboard," he told The Associated Press.

    The five crew members, meanwhile, went on a dinghy to a private fishing boat, The Grape Escape, which was anchored near the north shore of Santa Cruz Island. Two crew members had minor injuries.

    'Horrendous'

    The Grape Escape's owners, Bob and Shirley Hansen, told The New York Times they were asleep when they heard pounding on the side of their 60-foot (18-metre) vessel about 3:30am and discovered the frightened crew members.

    "When we looked out, the other boat was totally engulfed in flames, from stem to stern," Hansen said. "I could see the fire coming through holes on the side of the boat. There were these explosions every few beats. You can't prepare yourself for that. It was horrendous."

    California fire
    Two people hug after hanging a scuba flag at a makeshift memorial near Truth Aquatics as the search continues for those missing in a pre-dawn fire that sank a commercial diving boat off a Southern California island near Santa Barbara [Kyle Grillot/Reuters] 

    Hansen said two of the crew members went back towards the Conception looking for survivors but found no one.

    The 23-metre (75-foot) Conception was on a three-day excursion to the chain of rugged, wind-swept isles that form Channel Islands National Park in the Pacific Ocean west of Los Angeles. The fire broke out as the boat sat anchored in Platt's Harbor off Santa Cruz Island.

    The Conception, based in Santa Barbara Harbor on the mainland, was owned by Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics, founded in 1974. A memorial outside Truth Aquatics in the Santa Barbara Harbor grew Monday night as mourners came to pay their respects.

    Dave Reid, who runs an underwater camera manufacturing business with his wife, Terry Schuller, and has travelled on the Conception and two other boats in Truth Aquatics' fleet, said he considered all three among the best and safest.

    "When you see the boats they are always immaculate," he 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."

    His wife said Truth Aquatics crews have always been meticulous in going over safety instructions at the beginning of every trip she's been on.

    "They tell you where the life jackets are, how to put them on ... the exits, where the fire extinguishers are, on every single trip," said Schuller. "They are the best, the absolute best."

    Both said the sleeping area is comfortable but tight, however, with bunk beds stacked next to one another on the lowest deck. Coming up to the top deck to get off requires navigating a narrow stairway with only one exit.

    If the fire was fast-moving, Reid said, it's very likely divers could not escape and the crew could not get to them.

    Coast Guard records show all safety violations from the last five years were quickly addressed by the boat's owners. Some violations were 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.

    California boat fire
    In this photo released by the Ventura County Fire Department, firefighters attempt to extinguish a fire on a boat off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, California [Handout/Ventura County Fire Department/AFP] 

    The Conception was chartered by Worldwide Diving Adventures, which says on its website that it has been taking divers on such expeditions since the 1970s.

    Andy Taylor, owner of Blue Water Hunter Dive Shop in Santa Barbara, said he discussed dive conditions with several people Friday as they were buying some last-minute things before boarding the Conception. Taylor said he often sends divers to Truth Aquatics for trips and he has friends who have crewed on the Conception. 

    He said he was on the phone all day Monday as friends checked to make sure he had not been on the boat. 

    "Right now, it's a big question of who was on there and who wasn't," he said. "I'm scared to see the list of names, honestly."

    SOURCE: AP news agency