SANTA BARBARA (CBSLA) — Authorities called off a search for survivors Tuesday in a dive boat fire that is believed to have killed 34 people near Santa Cruz Island off the Southern California coast.
National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy said that she’s “100 percent confident” investigators will find the cause of the fire aboard the vessel “Conception,” which caught fire before dawn Monday and sank.
Twenty bodies have been recovered and another 14 people are presumed to be dead. Only five crew members on the boat escaped.
The National Transportation Safety Board plans to stay at the scene for up to 10 days and will look into safety measures aboard the boat, such as whether it had fire extinguishers, and will interview survivors, first responders, divers and others. The agency also is asking people who might have photos or videos that could help in the investigation to email them to the board.
At around 3:15 a.m. Monday, a fire destroyed the Santa Barbara-based Conception, a 75-foot-long charter dive boat that was anchored about 20 yards off Platts Harbor on the north side of Santa Cruz Island, which is located about 30 miles west of the city of Ventura.
Five crew members, including the captain, were above deck when the fire broke out. They jumped into the water and then climbed into a dingy and paddled away. They were rescued by a nearby good Samaritan’s boat.
However, 33 passengers and one crew member who were asleep in their bunks below deck when the fire broke out are presumed dead.
“The one crew member who was not rescued appears to have been asleep in the sleeping area below with the passengers,” Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown said at a news conference Tuesday morning.
Officials Tuesday announced that 20 bodies had been recovered and taken to the Santa Barbara County coroner’s office: 11 females and nine males. Divers discovered another four to six bodies that they were unable to reach because they were in the wreckage.
“Do the positioning of the boat, they were unable to be recovered before nightfall,” Bill Brown said.
Efforts will be made to stabilize the boat so divers can enter it, Brown explained. A half-mile search area will also be established based on currents and the debris field.
“Our hope is that we will be able to penetrate the wreckage today, ” Brown said.
Because the bodies were so badly burned, DNA profiles will be conducted to positively identify them.
“The bodies do exhibit signs of extreme thermal damage,” Brown said.
The victims ranged in age from 17 to some in their 60s. Most were from Northern California. CBS2 has learned that two students and two parents of a Santa Cruz high school were among the dead. Kristy Finstad, a diving instructor from Santa Cruz, also perished.
“The majority of people on this trip appeared to have been from the Santa Cruz/San Jose Bay Area reason that contracted with this company that chartered this vessel,” Brown said.
Authorities have so far made contact with the families of 30 of the 34 victims.
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said that the search for survivors was suspended Tuesday morning and the operation had now entered into a recovery phase.
“As of 9:40 a.m. this morning, Coast Guard has suspended search efforts pending further development…We have suspended the search efforts due to no additional individuals having been witnessed entering the water,” Rochester said.
Everyone who was below deck in the sleeping quarters is believed to have died, likely trapped by the flames.
“There was a stairwell to get down the main entryway, up and down, and there was an escape hatch, and it would appear that both of those were blocked by fire,” Brown said.
There was still no word on whether the five surviving crew members had provided investigators with any information on what may have sparked the blaze.
“The Coast Guard is presently in the process of investigating and interviewing those folks with the National Transportation Board,” Rochester said.
There is no evidence that the fire was caused by an explosion, officials said.
“There’s no indication at this point in the investigation that there was an explosion that preceded this fire,” Brown said.
The ship had three decks. The lower deck had the sleeping area, the middle deck had the galley and salon, and the top deck had the bridge and the crew’s quarters.
“So it would be perfectly normal for the crew to be on that third deck,” Brown said. “That was their assigned location to sleep.”
The Conception was required to have working smoke detectors and fixed and portable firefighting systems.
“This vessel is required to be inspected annually by the U.S. Coast Guard, and it has been in compliance with all federal regulations,” Rochester said.
Rochester also addressed a portion of audio that was released Monday from the mayday call from the Conception in which an emergency dispatcher asked the crew if there were any locked doors on the boat.
“There are no locked doors in accommodation spaces aboard these vessels, its open berthing,” Rochester said Tuesday. “The only privacy that you have, and I’m sure that you’ve seen because it’s on the vessel’s website, are curtains, that’s it.”
Conception was owned by Truth Aquatics, a boat rental service based out of Santa Barbara. It was built in Long Beach and first launched in 1981. According to Truth Aquatics’ website, Conception has a maximum capacity of 46 people. The charter was booked by a group called Worldwide Diving Adventures. Truth Aquatics has been running charters since 1974.