8 dead, 26 still missing off coast
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — A fire raged through a boat carrying recreational scuba divers anchored near an island off the Southern California coast early Monday, leaving at least eight people dead and hope diminishing that any of the 26 people still missing would be found alive.
Five crew members escaped by jumping off the boat and taking refuge on an inflatable boat.
Rescuers recovered four bodies from the waters just off Santa Cruz Island and spotted four others on the ocean floor near where fire-ravaged boat sank. They were continuing to search for survivors, but Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester cautioned that it was unlikely anyone else would be found alive.
“We will search all the way through the night into the morning, but I think we should all be prepared to move into the worst outcome,” she told an afternoon news conference.
The four bodies plucked from the ocean about 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles all had injuries consistent with drowning, said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll.
It wasn’t immediately clear when the bodies on the ocean floor 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,”
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.
The fire broke out aboard the vessel Conception around 3 a.m. off Santa Cruz Island, part of a chain of rugged isles that form Channel Islands National Park in the Pacific Ocean.
The five crew members who escaped were rescued by a good Samaritan boat called The Grape Escape that was anchored nearby. Two suffered minor injuries, Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney said.
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 fishing vessel about 3:30 a.m. and discovered the frightened crew members. They told the couple they fled when the fire grew out of control.
“When we looked out, the other boat was totally engulfed in flames, from stem to stern,” Bob Hansen said, estimating it was no more than 100 yards from his craft.
“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.
“The fire was too big, there was absolutely nothing we could do,” he added.
Hansen said he and his wife gave the crew clothes and two of them went back toward the Conception looking for survivors. Asked at a news conference if the crew tried to help others aboard, Rochester told reporters, “I don’t have any additional information.”
Rochester said the 75-foot commercial scuba diving vessel was anchored in Platts Harbor, about 20 yards off the northern coast of Santa Cruz Island, when the fire ignited.
The Conception, based in Santa Barbara Harbor on the mainland, was on the final day of a Labor Day weekend cruise when the fire erupted.
“At 3:15 this morning the Coast Guard overheard a mayday call. The call was garbled, it was not that clear, but we were able to get some information out of it to send vessels on scene,” Barney said.
Rochester said that call indicated the boat was already fully ablaze.
Brown said the elements of the tragedy were daunting for rescuers: The boat was in a remote location with limited firefighting capabilities, passengers were sleeping below deck in the middle of the night and there was a quick-moving fire.
“You couldn’t ask for a worse situation,” he said.
Coast Guard records show inspections of the Conception conducted last February and in August 2018 found no deficiencies. Earlier inspections found some safety violations 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.
The 75-foot dive boat Conception, anchored off Santa Cruz Island, burns after catching fire early Monday.