Officials said 34 people died after a boat full of divers caught fire near an island off the coast of Southern California, canceling efforts to search for survivors.
The Coast Guard and law enforcement said no one was found alive after the dive boat caught fire as passengers on a recreational diving expedition were sleeping under the deck.
The vehicle carried 33 passengers and 6 crew members, and only five crew members sleeping on the upper deck were able to escape by jumping and taking a small boat to safety. Investigators have yet to determine how the fire started.
Santa Barbara County‘s Bill Brown said the bodies of 20 victims had been recovered and divers saw between four and six others in the sinking wreck. He said authorities are trying to stabilize the boat, which sank about 60 feet (18 meters) out of the water, so that divers can recover the remains.
Brown said most needs to be identified with DNA analysis and officials collect samples from family members.
One of the riders, veteran marine biologist and diver Kristi Finstad, 41, was identified in a Facebook post by her brother Brett Harmling from Houston.
“Please pray for my sister Kristi !! She was leading a diving trip on this boat,” Harmling wrote.
The missing and dead were among 39 passengers and crew who left Santa Barbara harbor on the boat on a weekend trip.
The fire broke out at around 3 a.m. as the load was installed off Santa Cruz Island, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) west of Los Angeles. The crew appeared to quickly seek help.
“The call was confused, it was not clear, but we were able to get some information from her to send ships,” said Mark Barney, a Coast Guard officer.
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 a fire boat were on site.
Amaral said he first searched the water and the beach, and then returned again to the lamb, which was now adrift. He tied a rope and pulled it into deeper waters so that fireboats could reach him.
“We launched that boat, and we know it was on fire and there were a lot of people on board,” he said.
Meanwhile, the five crew members went on a canoe to a private fishing boat, The Grape Escape, that was docked near Santa Cruz Island’s north shore. Two were slightly injured.
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.
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 violations were related to fire safety. A general 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 was on the phone as friends checked it to make sure he wasn’t on the boat.
He said, “Right now, there is a big question about who was there and who wasn’t.” “I’m afraid to see the list of names, honestly.