Santa barbara boat fire, 4 dead, up to 30 missing as massive search continues.
Coast Guard officials said four bodies have been recovered and up to 30 people are believed to be missing after a 75-foot commercial diving boat erupted in flames near the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island, Calif., early Monday.
Many aboard the boat, identified as the Conception, were thought to be sleeping below deck when the fire broke out in the pre-dawn hours. Authorities continued their search Monday for possible survivors, as the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s coroner office prepared for a mass casualty incident.
“We’re gearing up resources to be able to handle the potential for a lot of fatalities off of this boat,” Raney said.
Five crew members were already awake and jumped off the boat, which was 20 yards off shore of the north side of Santa Cruz Island near the Ventura County coast, according to U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester.
Around 3:15 a.m., Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach watchstanders overheard a mayday call of the boat on fire, according to the agency. Fire department crews were fighting the fire when the boat sank 20 yards off shore in 64 feet of water, with a portion of the bow sticking out of the water.
In a garbled mayday call reported by NBC Bay Area, a man says there are 39 people aboard.
“I can’t breathe,” the man frantically says.
The five crew members were rescued by a good Samaritan pleasure craft, the Grape Escape, according to the agency. Two of them sustained leg injuries.
Shirley Hansen and her husband Bob were jarred awake about 3:30 a.m. by the sound of pounding on the side of their 60-foot fishing boat.
The crew had escaped the Conception by jumping into the ocean, retrieving a small dingy and paddling 200 yards to the Hansen’s boat, the Grape Escape, Hansen said in an interview.
The crew was distraught, some only wearing underwear, she said. One man told the Hansens that his girlfriend was still below deck on the Conception. Another man cried, describing how they had celebrated three passengers’ birthdays hours earlier, including that of a 17-year-old girl who was on the diving trip with her parents.
One of crewman’s leg was injured, Hansen said, and another had visible ankle injuries. She could see the Conception ablaze from her boat and said there was so much smoke that she had to use an inhaler.
As the Hansens handed out blankets and clothes to the crew, two of the men got back into the dingy to see if anyone else had jumped overboard.
“But they came back and said there was no one,” she said.
Family and friends seek information
Goleta resident Frank Pineda headed to Santa Barbara Harbor on Monday morning, anxious to get news about his friend who had planned to go scuba diving on the Conception over Labor Day weekend.
“He was excited about the trip,” said Pineda, who described his friend as an avid diver who had recently traveled to Africa for a dive. Pineda said he’s yet to receive any information about his friend.
Authorities have set up a family assistance center at Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara. A family information line has been opened at (833) 688-5551.
Several charter operations run diving expeditions around the Channel Islands. The charters typically take off from Ventura and Santa Barbara Harbor for several days.
The boat departed from its base in Santa Barbara Harbor on Saturday morning and was scheduled to return Monday about 5 p.m.
At Santa Barbara Harbor, employees said they could not comment on the deaths and were still waiting to hear from the Coast Guard. Employees were hugging each other as tourists and other people going fishing were boarding a nearby boat.
Well-known diving operation
Truth Aquatics, the company that owns Conception, is a respected name in the diving world, running several boats off the Channel Islands. Owner Glen Fritzler won the California Scuba Service Award earlier this year for his pioneering work in the industry.
According to California Diving News, Fritzler built the Conception in 1981 and it was a major part of his life and business.
“Conception was California’s crown jewel of live-aboard dive boats. It’s also where Glen met the love of his life, Dana. On the couple’s first dive together they encountered a 17-foot great white shark, truly a memorable first dive-date experience,” Diving News reported.
Fritzler told the paper his firm’s boats have hosted more than 450,000 divers and more than 1 million dives.
Truth Aquatics would not comment Monday morning. A person who answered the phone said they were waiting for official word from the Coast Guard and needed to keep their lines clear.
Ralph Clevenger, a photographer who regularly takes pictures of expeditions for Truth Aquatics, has been on hundreds of diving trips with the company since the ‘90s.
Jerry Boylan is usually the captain of the Conception, Clevenger said, although he doesn’t know if Boylan manned the vessel during the Labor Day trip. He noted that Boylan is a top-notch captain who has been with Truth Aquatics longer than anyone else, other than the company’s owner.
“It’s a position where if you’re not good with people and your crew, and operating the boat, you just don’t last,” Clevenger said.
When Rochester was asked if the boat operator has a history of violations, she said, “the vessel has been in full compliance.”
“We are working deliberately with the vessel owner operator, who is with us at this time, working on a plan to conduct further assistance for his vessel,” Rochester said.
Theresa Johnston, who has taken dive trips on the Conception and other Truth boats, said the cabin where passengers sleep in bunk beds is below the boat’s kitchen area. She said there is a narrow staircase connecting the beds to the kitchen above and that bunk beds are stacked three high.
Members of the tight-knit scuba diving community expressed grief over the tragedy on social media.
“The boat, owners, Captain and crew have always been exemplary and have kept us safe and returned us back to the dock,” wrote San Luis Obispo dive shop SLO Ocean Currents on Facebook on Monday morning. “It is a humbling day and a reminder to make every day count.”
“I know we speak for the SoCal diving community when we say we were shocked to hear the news this morning,” Thousand Oaks dive shop Channel Islands Scuba wrote on its Facebook page. “Our heartfelt prayers and condolences to those directly affected.”
Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village) said she had been planning to go to a Labor Day parade when she heard news of the boating accident.
“Devastating. Tragic. And we’re hoping there could still be some survivors,” said Brownley, after being briefed by the Coast Guard in Oxnard.
Gov. Gavin Newsom also shared a statement on Twitter regarding the fire.
“Our hearts are with the families and loved ones affected by this tragic incident. 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.”