The dive boat Conception on fire Monday morning. Courtesy Ventura County Fire Department

Efforts continued Tuesday morning to recover the bodies of 34 people feared killed when a commercial diving boat caught fire and sank near Santa Cruz Island.

Personnel from the Los Angeles County Coroner‘s office were assisting Tuesday in efforts to identify the remains of 20 people recovered so far.

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said the search effort at the site where the 75-foot Conception caught fire early Monday had transitioned from a rescue operation to a recovery effort.

“Search and recovery efforts have ceased,” Rochester said.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said 20 bodies had been recovered — 11 female and nine male — and four to six bodies had been seen by divers inside the burned and sunken vessel. Divers planned to work Tuesday to find and recover other bodies, he said.

Brown said investigators would be working to compare DNA samples from the bodies with samples from relatives of the victims. He said investigators would compare the identities with a list of 34 names of people believed to have died aboard the vessel to make sure they actually were aboard the vessel when it sank.

No identifications have been released.

The Coast Guard launched several assets from its Los Angeles-Long Beach base when the first mayday call was heard at 3:15 a.m. Monday, Rochester said.

Five crew members aboard the Conception jumped from the burning ship and were evacuated aboard a good Samaritan pleasure craft named Grape Escape, according to Rochester. One crew member suffered non life-threatening injuries, according to the Coast Guard.

Crews from the Coast Guard, Santa Barbara Fire Department and Ventura County Fire Department responded and were fighting the fire when the vessel sank around 7:20 a.m. while it was 20 yards offshore in 64 feet of water. Divers with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department assisted in the search. Personnel from the Long Beach Police Department assisted in establishing a security perimeter.

Rochester said the crew probably was able to escape because they were awake and above deck when the fire broke out.

The cause of the fire was under investigation, and personnel from the National Transportation Safety Board were involved in the probe of the deadly incident.

Brown said the Conception departed Saturday morning and was scheduled to return Tuesday morning.

A shrine of candles and flowers appeared on the Santa Barbara dock where the Conception was scheduled to dock.

The Coast Guard said family members looking for information about their loved ones should call 833-688-5551 or 800-400-1572. A Family Assistance Center was set up at Earl Warren Fair Grounds, 3400 Calle Real, Santa Barbara.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, on Monday called for an investigation into the deaths.

“It’s inconceivable that with all the safety regulations we have in place today, a fire on a boat can lead to the loss of life we saw this morning near Santa Cruz Island,” she said.

“We need an immediate and robust interagency investigation. The Coast Guard, along with officials from Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, are already hard at work. Once personnel from the NTSB and FBI join the effort (Tuesday) we must learn as much as possible about how this happened and how future tragedies can be prevented.”

Brown said Tuesday that investigators had received statements written by the surviving crew members, but had not yet interviewed them.

Brown noted that recordings that had been released of mayday calls may have “conflated” — or combined — calls made by a crew member of the Conception with calls made by one or more good Samaritan vessels.

Brown also said radio calls regarding “explosions” apparently were made well after the fire began, and that there were no indications that explosions had preceded the fire.

Updated at 12:45 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019

— City News Service

Show comments

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.