9 Missing, 25 Dead in Southern California Dive Boat Fire

By Stefanie Dazio | September 3, 2019

Divers and search crews were still looking Tuesday for nine missing people after at least 25 were confirmed dead when a boat packed with scuba divers caught fire near an island off the Southern California coast.

The dive-boat Conception became engulfed in flames before dawn as the passengers on a recreational scuba diving trip slept below deck.

“You couldn’t ask for a worse situation,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll said late Monday night at least 25 people died. He said 20 bodies were recovered and five others were found but not retrieved due to unsafe conditions under the boat, which sank in about 60 feet of water.

Kroll said the count of those found was based on initial reports and needed to be confirmed through autopsies.

The search for the missing went through the night and fog and low clouds on Tuesday were not expected to limit the search crews in their efforts, said Santa Barbara City Fire Department spokeswoman Amber Anderson

Five crew members sleeping on the top deck jumped off and took a dinghy to safety. Two had minor injuries. A sixth crew member was among the missing

Meanwhile, authorities opened a family assistance center where counseling was being provided to relatives of those onboard. None of their names were immediately released.

Authorities say four more victims of a catastrophic dive boat fire have been found on the ocean floor off Southern California. At least eight are known dead. The Coast Guard says crews are searching for more than two dozen other missing persons.

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

In this photo provided by the Ventura County Fire Department, VCFD firefighters respond to a boat fire off the coast of southern California, Monday, Sept. 2, 2019. The U.S. Coast Guard said it has launched several boats to help over two dozen people “in distress” off the coast of southern California. (Ventura County Fire Department via AP)

The fire broke out about 3 a.m. as the Conception was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, about 90 miles west of Los Angeles. The crew appeared to quickly call for help.

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

Capt. Paul Amaral of the vessel assistance company TowBoatUS also launched a fast boat from Ventura Harbor, but it was some 30 miles away. By the time it got there around 5 a.m. 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 the dinghy to a private fishing boat, The Grape Escape, that was anchored near the north shore of Santa Cruz Island.

That boat’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 vessel about 3:30 a.m. 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.”

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

Four bodies had injuries consistent with drowning, Kroll said.

It was not immediately clear when the other bodies that have been found might be retrieved or when divers could search the boat for others.

“It’s upside down in relatively shallow water with receding tides that are moving it around,” Brown said. Investigators have not yet determined a cause for the fire.

Associated Press writers John Antczak, John Rogers, Frank Baker and Justin Pritchard in Los Angeles, Stephanie Mullen in San Francisco, Michael R. Blood in Oxnard, California, and Michael Balsamo in Washington contributed to this story.

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