25 people are confirmed killed and 9 others are still missing after a tragic boat fire near an island off the coast of Southern California.
The diving boat concept, away from the sea in the middle of the night, became so engulfed in flames that 30 passengers slept on a recreational diving trip under the deck.
“You can’t ask for a worse situation,” said Bill Brown, Santa Barbara County Sheriff.
Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander. Matthew Kroll says that at least 25 people on a recreational diving expedition have died and the search will continue throughout the night for the nine others still missing. He said five others were found but not recovered due to the unsafe conditions beneath the boat, which sank in about 60 feet (18 meters) of water. Kroll says these numbers are based on preliminary reports and authorities are awaiting final charges from autopsies.
Five crew members who were sleeping on the upper deck jumped and took a boat to safety. Two were slightly injured.
Meanwhile, the authorities opened a family assistance center where relatives of those on board are counseled. None of their names were released immediately.
The missing and dead were among 39 passengers and crew who departed from Santa Barbara Port on Channel Island on Saturday aboard a Concepcion boat on a Labor Day weekend scuba diving expedition.
The fire broke out at around 3 a.m. as the load was installed off Santa Cruz Island, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles. The crew appeared to quickly seek help.
Coast Guard Officer Mark Barney said, “The call was confused, it was not clear, but we were able to get some information from them to send ships.”
Captain Paul Amaral of Tobuatos Ship Aid also launched a speedboat from the port of Ventura, but it was about 30 miles (48 kilometers) away. By the time I got there around 5 am, a Coast Guard helicopter and fire boat were on site.
Amaral said he first researched the waters and the beach, then returned again to the concept of pregnancy, which was adrift and delinquent. He tied a rope and pulled it into deep water where fireboats could reach.
“We launched this boat and we know that the ship was on fire, and there were many people on board,” he said.
Meanwhile, the five crew members took their boat to a private fishing boat, The Grape Escape, which was docked near the north shore of Santa Cruz Island.
The owners of the boat, Bob and Shirley Hansen, said they were asleep when they heard a bombardment from the side of their 60-foot (18 m) ship around 3:30 a.m. and spotted the panicked crew members.
“When we looked, the other boat was on fire, from torso to stern,” said Hansen. “I could see flames rising from the holes on the side of the boat. There were these explosions every few beats. You can’t prepare for that. It was horrible.”
Hansen said two crew members returned toward the Aries looking for survivors but found no one.
Kroll said four bodies sustained injuries consistent with the drowning.
It was not immediately clear when other bodies found could be recovered or when divers could search the boat for others.
“It is upside down in relatively shallow water, with receding tide that drives it,” Brown said. Investigators have not yet determined the cause of the fire.
The 75-foot (23 m) lamb was on a three-day expedition to the rugged, windswept chain of islands that make up the Channel Islands National Park in the Pacific Ocean west of Los Angeles. The fire broke out when the boat sat in Port Platte off Santa Cruz Island.
Conception, based in the mainland port of Santa Barbara, was owned by Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics, which was founded in 1974. A monument grew outside Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara harbor Monday night as mourners came to pay their respects.
Dave Reed, who runs an underwater camera manufacturer with his wife, Terry Schuller, who has traveled on the Conception boat and two other boats in the Truth Aquatics fleet, said he considers the three to be among the best and safest.
He said, “When you see the boats they are always pure.” “I would never hesitate to go to one again. Of all the boat companies, this will be one that I don’t think this will happen to them.”
His wife said that Truth Aquatics crews were always meticulous in going past safety instructions at the start of every trip they were taking.
“They tell you where the life jackets are, and how to put them … the exits, where the fire extinguishers are, on every trip,” Schuller said. “They are the best, the best.”
They both said the sleeping area is comfortable but cramped, with the bunk beds stacked next to each other in the basement. The climb to the upper deck of the descent requires you to navigate a narrow staircase with only one exit.
Reed said that if the flames were fast-moving, it was very likely that the divers would not be able to escape and the crew would not be able to reach them.
Coast Guard records show that all safety violations over the past five years were quickly remedied by the boat owners. Some of the safety violations were related to fire safety. An inspection resulted in the owners replacing the thermostat in the kitchen, and one of them indicated a fire hose leak.
Conception was hired by Worldwide Diving Adventures, which says on its website that it has been taking divers on such expeditions since the 1970s.
Andy Taylor, the owner of the Blue Water Hunter Dive Shop in Santa Barbara, said he had discussed diving conditions with several people as they were buying some things at the last minute before boarding Conception. Taylor said he often sends divers to Truth Aquatics for trips and has friends who were involved in pregnancy.
He said he had been on the phone all day Monday as friends checked him to make sure he was not on the boat.
He said, “Right now, there is a big question about who was there and who wasn’t.” “I am afraid to see the list of names honestly.