Rescue crews so far have recovered 20 bodies while seeing another four to six in the wreckage of the Conception that caught fire early Monday near Santa Cruz Island and sank in one of California’s worst boating incidents in history, with 34 presumed dead.
The U.S. Coast Guard suspended search operations for survivors at 9:40 a.m. Tuesday, because it saw no sign that anyone had gotten away safety from the dive-boat vessel.
The cause of the deadly fire is unclear, it was announced during a Tuesday press conference with various officials, although the local sheriff said the fire came before any explosions.
“There is no indication that there was an explosion preceding the fire,’ Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said, adding that there might have been explosions afterward.
The vessel, the Conception, must be stabilized before divers can return to get the bodies they have seen and others. Upside down, equipment will be hanging downward and could be perilous to divers.
None of the victims have been officially identified, and DNA will be used in the process. Of the suspected dead, family members or friends of 30 were in contact with officials; those of four had not reached out to authorities yet.
A trip that was supposed to be filled with the beauty of the ocean, exploring the underwater world of the Channel Islands National Park, was instead marred in tragedy.
Among the survivors appears to have been the captain, Brown said, adding that the lone crew member who died was below deck, sleeping, with the rest of the guests.
Those below did not have time to escape.
“There are no locked doors on these vessels,” U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said at the press conference. “There are only curtains.”
Rescuers scoured the waters and dove about the wreckage of the 75-foot-long Conception, which had rolled upside down on the ocean floor in about 60 feet of water on the north end of Santa Cruz Island.
Flowers filled a fence line at the Sea Landing in Santa Barbara Harbor where Truth Aquatics operated the Conception along with two other vessels. Next to flowers was a set of fins with the words written on one of them, “We love you Conception.”
Another note with flowers near the entrance to the dock said, “Our hearts are with the divers of the Conception and all those who loved them.”
Rochester said the vessel was in good standing with the Coast Guard, which performs inspections annually on such boats. The dive-boat operators, too, had a good reputation, said Thomas Kruger, director of scuba operations at Dive N’ Surf in Redondo Beach, who is familiar with the company and the vessel.
“This has been way out of left field,” Kruger said.
Former passengers, including actor Rob Lowe, shared condolences on social media.
“My heart breaks for those onboard the Conception,” Lowe wrote on Twitter. “An unspeakable horror on a boat I’ve been on many times. My prayers and thoughts are with the families.”
The popular dive boat that has been a mainstay in the Santa Barbara Harbor for decades was carrying 33 passengers and six crew members on a three-day diving trip to the Channel Islands over Labor Day weekend.
The 38-year-old boat was anchored in Platts Harbor at the north end of Santa Cruz Island when the fire broke out shortly before 3:30 a.m. A frantic mayday call, apparently from a member captured by a marine radio, revealed urgency.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” a voice could be heard.
“I can’t breath,” he said later, barely audible.
Five out of six crew members, including the captain, escaped the burning vessel — some with injuries — and sought help from a nearby boat. The passengers were apparently trapped. The boat sank about 7:20 a.m., according to the Coast Guard.
Officials have given the recovered bodies visual inspections but autopsies had not been done yet.
More loved ones of the victims were expected to arrive Tuesday to a family assistance center located a short distance from the harbor to receive updated information, further details about the incident and support. Roughly 15 families came to the center Monday, said Suzanne Grimmesey, a spokeswoman for Santa Barbara County Department of Behavioral Wellness spokeswoman.
“We are used to working together as a team after traumatic events and disasters,” said Grimmesey, referring to the response to the Woolsey Fire and the Borderline Bar and Grill shooting. “A family assistance center opens up when there is a mass-casualty event or a situation where we don’t know exactly what happened.”