8 dead, 26 still missing off coast

The Morning Call - - FRONT PAGE - By Stefanie Dazio

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.

SANTA BARBARA COUNTY FIRE DEPART­MENT

The 75-foot dive boat Con­cep­tion, an­chored off Santa Cruz Is­land, burns af­ter catch­ing fire early Mon­day.

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