Rescue crews have recovered 20 bodies so far while seeing another four to six in the wreckage of the Conception, the scuba-diving boat that caught fire before dawn Monday near Santa Cruz Island and sank in one of California’s worst boating incidents in history, with 34 presumed dead.
The U.S. Coast Guard suspended search operations for survivors at 9:40 a.m. Tuesday, after a nearly 24-hour, wide-sweeping search with helicopters and boats, because it saw no sign that anyone had gotten away safely from the dive boat.
“It’s never an easy decision to suspend search efforts,” U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said.
The cause of the deadly incident was unclear, although the local sheriff said the fire came before any explosions.
“There is no indication that there was an explosion preceding the fire,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said during a Tuesday morning press conference at his agency’s headquarters, adding that there might have been an explosion afterward.
“That would have been well after the fire was underway,” he said. “That could have been propane bottles or scuba tanks that could have been blowing up in the fire.”
Among the five survivors, all crew members, appears to have been the captain, Brown said, adding that the lone crew member who died was below deck, sleeping with the rest of the guests.
None of those on the bottom deck had time to escape, with fire likely blocking both a spiral staircase and an escape hatch leading to safety, Brown said.
“There are no locked doors on these vessels,” U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said at the press conference. “It’s open berthing. The only privacy you have are curtains. There are only curtains.”
There were several fire extinguishers on board, she said.
U.S. Coast Guard records show the Conception was inspected in February and no deficiencies were found.
Some inspections, in past years, show violations related to fire safety but they were fixed by the owners. In 2016, an inspection determined a need to “prove proper operation of the heat detector in the galley;” the owners replaced the heat detector.
Two years earlier, the boat had a leaky fire hose, which was quickly resolved as well.
The boat was operated by Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics, part of a three-boat fleet.
Like the Conception itself, the dive-boat operators, too, have a good reputation, said Thomas Kruger, director of scuba operations at Dive N’ Surf in Redondo Beach, who is familiar with the company and the vessel.
“This has been way out of left field,” Kruger said.
The Conception, on the ocean floor in about 60 feet of water on the north end of Santa Cruz Island, must be stabilized before divers can return to get the victims’ bodies that have been seen and others. Resting on the ocean floor upside down, equipment will be hanging downward and could be perilous to divers.
“The hope today is to penetrate the wreckage body, stabilize the vessel and recover any remains in the boat,” Brown said.
None of the victims had been officially identified, and DNA will be used in the process as victims showed signs of extreme thermal damage, Brown said. Of the suspected dead, family members or friends of 30 were in contact with officials; those of four had not reached out to authorities by Tuesday morning. Most of the victims likely hailed from Santa Cruz and the San Jose Bay Area, ranging in age from teenagers to some in their 60s, Brown said.
Officials have given the recovered bodies visual inspections but autopsies had not been done yet. Of the 20 bodies taken to a coroner’s facility so far, 11 were females and nine were males.
Flowers filled a fence line at the Sea Landing in Santa Barbara Harbor where Truth Aquatics operated the Conception along with the two other vessels. Next to flowers was a set of fins with the words written on one of them, “We love you Conception.”
Another note with flowers near the entrance to the dock said, “Our hearts are with the divers of the Conception and all those who loved them.”
Former passengers, including actor Rob Lowe, shared condolences on social media.
“My heart breaks for those onboard the Conception,” Lowe wrote on Twitter. “An unspeakable horror on a boat I’ve been on many times. My prayers and thoughts are with the families.”
The trip was supposed to be filled with the beauty of the ocean, exploring the underwater world of the Channel Islands National Park.
The popular, 75-foot-long dive boat that has been a mainstay in the Santa Barbara Harbor for decades was carrying 33 passengers and six crew members on a three-day diving trip to the Channel Islands over Labor Day weekend.
The 38-year-old boat was anchored in Platts Harbor at the north end of Santa Cruz Island when the fire broke out shortly before 3:30 a.m. A frantic mayday call, apparently from a crew member captured by a marine radio, revealed urgency.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” the caller said.
“I can’t breath,” he said later, barely audible.
Five out of six crew members, including the captain, escaped the burning vessel — some with injuries — and sought help from a nearby boat. The boat sank about 7:20 a.m., according to the Coast Guard.
Staff writer Alma Fausto contributed to this report.