A commercial dive boat with 39 passengers and crew members aboard was engulfed in flames early Monday and sunk hours later near the Santa Cruz Island shoreline off the Ventura County coast, officials said. Authorities confirmed eight deaths, with more than two dozen people still missing at sea.
By midday Monday, authorities had confirmed that four victims were found dead near the 75-foot vessel Conception, which departed Saturday from Santa Barbara Harbor for a Labor Day holiday weekend excursion. Later in the day, crews discovered four more bodies on the ocean floor near the wreckage of the vessel, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.
What sparked the horrific fire, which was first reported to the Coast Guard via a frantic mayday call around 3:30 a.m., wasn’t immediately known.
“Our hearts go out to the families of the victims of this terrible tragedy,” Brown said at a somber news conference. “We understand the tremendous burden they are under right now as they wait to determine exactly what happened. We will be working diligently to get them as much information as possible as soon as possible.”
Authorities were continuing to search into the evening for more of the 33 passengers unaccounted for after flames tore through boat. The Conception also carried six crew members, five of whom were rescued after fleeing the burning craft, officials said.
“We will continue to search but we should be prepared for the worst outcome,” U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said.
Firefighters responded to the blaze shortly before 3:30 a.m., about 90 miles from Los Angeles. Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach overheard a mayday call about 15 minutes earlier of a commercial vessel with 39 people aboard.
By the time crews arrived shortly after the mayday call, the boat was fully engulfed in flames with little anyone could do to save it, said Mark Hartwig, Santa Barbara County’s fire chief.
Crews from the Coast Guard, Santa Barbara Fire Department, Ventura County Fire Department and Vessel Assist responded. The fire crews were fighting the blaze when the vessel sank 20 yards off shore in 64 feet of water, officials said.
Authorities said that the initial four recovered bodies had injuries consistent with drowning, according to The Associated Press.
Five of the boat’s crew members were rescued by a nearby boat.
“The crew was actually already awake and on the bridge and they jumped off,” Rochester told reporters at a news conference at the Channel Islands Harbor.
They were evacuated on to a good Samaritan’s boat, Grape Escape, the Coast Guard said. Two of the crew members had minor injuries, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney.
“When we looked out, the other boat was totally engulfed in flames, from stem to stern,” Grape Escape owner Bob Hansen told The New York Times. “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.”
As the morning turned to afternoon, family members of the missing passengers trickled in to the Coast Guard station in Oxnard in search of answers.
Sheriff Brown told reporters that the passengers would have be identified through DNA, depending on the condition of their remains.
A woman who came to the harbor early Monday said, “My son was on that boat.” She was led away by a Ventura County firefighter.
At around 8:30 a.m., the vessel had a portion of the bow sticking out of the water, authorities said.
Rochester said that the missing passengers were sleeping below deck at the time of the fire. She said authorities were working with the owners of the boat which had been in “full compliance” prior to its trip departure.
Rochester said rescuers would continue searching through the night.
“This isn’t a day that we wanted to wake up to,” she said at the afternoon news conference.
Several photos on social media posted by the fire agencies showed the Santa Barbara Harbor-based vessel completely overtaken by flames.
According to the Worldwide Diving Adventures website, the boat was on its last day of a three-day diving excursion that started in Santa Barbara Harbor. The Labor Day weekend trip, which started Aug. 31, gave passengers the opportunity to see marine life and explore San Miguel Island, according to the website.
The Conception had departed at 4 a.m. Saturday with plans to return Monday.
The boat was launched in 1981 and had a 46-person capacity, according to its profile on the website of Truth Aquatics, the Santa Barbara company that owns the ship. It had rafts and life jackets for 110 passengers and a fixed CO2 engine room for fire suppression.
Divers sleep in a single room of bunk beds, according to a diagram of the Conception posted on the website.
Thomas Kruger, director of scuba operations at Dive N’ Surf in Redondo Beach, said the boat and the operator had a good reputation.
Dive N’ Surf has booked charters on the Conception and other dive boats operated by Truth Aquatics, but not for at least a year mainly because of the distance, he said.
“This has been way out of left field,” Kruger said in an interview Monday. “The boat has been a phenomenally good boat that was meticulously kept. There was nothing anytime they were diving that would have indicated an event like this.”
Dive boats of that size are typically inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard about once per year, Kruger said. Operators also generally perform regular checks of fire extinguishers and other safety devices whenever the boat goes out, he said.
“Having a boat of that caliber there is a lot that goes into maintaining those boats and the systems on them,” Kruger said.
The event had a major effect on the close-knit diving community. Calls have been coming in inquiring whether anyone local was on board, Kruger said. As of Monday afternoon, the identities of the victims had not been released and Kruger did not know if any local divers were on board.
“We are sending out our prayers and our hopes that we get some better news by the end of the day,” he said.
Members of the diving community also expressed their grief on social media. Many shared their thoughts on the Truth Aquatics Facebook page, some recounting their own diving experiences.
Others showed photos of the vessel’s sleeping area, pondering if passengers could have escaped.
Most, like Kruger, offered their condolences and prayers.
Sprinkled into the comments were those who questioned why members of the crew may have been the only ones to survive. That sentiment was addressed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who Monday afternoon called for an “immediate and robust” investigation.
“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,” Feinstein said in a statement.
“We must know what fire-suppression systems and other emergency equipment are in place on these boats and whether they were in working order on the Conception. And we need to understand exactly how the crew was trained and, if they were awake and above-deck, why they were unable to alert or help rescue passengers.”
The Channel Islands National Park Service said that the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, Santa Barbara County Fire Department, United States Coast Guard are working with it as a unified command.
A one-mile safety zone was established around the perimeter of the incident while search-and-rescue efforts continue, officials said. A 3,000-foot flight restriction was also temporarily placed around the ship.
Authorities have established a Family Assistance Center at the Earl Warren Showgrounds, 3400 Calle Real, Santa Barbara, which is expected to remain open through Thursday. Information via phone is available from the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management at 833-688-5551.
The Associated Press and The New York Times contributed to this report.
This story was last updated at 8:16 p.m.