25 Victims Found, 9 People Missing After Diving Boat Catches Fire In California – WBUR
Updated at 1:31 a.m. ET Tuesday
Twenty-five people are confirmed to have died in the weekend dive boat disaster, according to The Associated Press, citing the Coast Guard. Nine people remain missing. A total of 39 people were on board the boat.
Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll told The AP that at least 25 people died in the accident. Kroll said five victims have been found but their bodies have not yet been recovered due to unsafe conditions under the boat. He said authorities will continue to search overnight for the nine people still missing.
Five crew members were rescued, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters at a news conference Monday afternoon.
The vessel was identified as the Conception, based out of Santa Barbara Harbor, and was on a three-day dive trip to the Channel Islands. It was operated by Truth Aquatics. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester told a news conference Monday that the company has been in full compliance with regulatory standards.
Truth Aquatics has been operating since 1974, specializing in diving trips off the California coast.
This boat departed Santa Barbara early Saturday and was due to return on Monday morning. But the 75-foot commercial diving vessel with 39 people on board became engulfed in flames sometime around 3:30 a.m. PT.
“This is probably the worst case scenario you could possibly have,” said Brown. “You have a vessel that’s on the open sea … in the middle of the night.” Most of the people on board were likely asleep, and the crew would have limited capacity to fight a fire.
It’s not clear how the blaze started, and Brown stated that the initial emergency call did not refer to an explosion. Nearby civilian boats first reached the scene to help rescue people after hearing mayday calls.
Multiple rescue agencies are involved the operation to assist people in “distress,” Coast Guard officials said. But it was a Good Samaritan pleasure craft called Grape Escape that helped evacuate the five crew members. (Editor’s note: The Coast Guard initially identified the boat that rescued crew members of the Conception as the Great Escape.)
Earlier in the day, Rochester said surviving crew members were “already awake and on the bridge, and they jumped off” at the time of the fire. The rest of the passengers are believed to have been below deck when the flames broke out.
Families and friends of the victims began arriving at Coast Guard Station Channel Islands Harbor hours after the blaze had destroyed the commercial boat.
One of the first to arrive was James Coles, who says his 58-year-old brother, a long time surfer, had worked as a cook on the boat for about a year.
“I haven’t been able to get ahold of his cell phone or nothing, you know,” Coles said. “I’m very concerned and I hope the best for everybody on there.”
Brown said that of the four bodies recovered as of Monday morning, two are adult males and two are adult females. “The four victims that we have recovered as of now will need to be identified through DNA and that may take some time,” he added.
The Conception eventually sank approximately 20 yards off shore in 64 feet of water, according to a Coast Guard statement.
The position of the boat underwater — and the fact that it is upside down and affected by the tides — means that recovering any bodies inside it will be a complicated operation for rescue divers.
“At some point they’re going to have to make a determination of when the best time is to actually either refloat that vessel and attempt to recover anyone who may be inside, or to try to make the recovery while it’s still on the ocean floor,” said Brown.
In an interview with Los Angeles TV station KTLA, Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney said two of the crew members had suffered minor leg injuries. He said that rescue agencies were searching for dozens of passengers from the ship as well as a missing crew member, using both aircraft and surface ships, but that the effort was hampered by dense early morning fog.
“One big question here going forward will be, what exactly was going on on the ship if the crew was able to get off… What were the circumstances around that?” NPR’s Kirk Siegler reported. “Could they not get under to start rescuing people, was it just too hot? We just don’t know at this time.”
The sheriff stated that there is an investigation underway to determine if there was any criminal activity involved — though he said “we have no reason to suspect that there was at this point.”
Santa Cruz Island is about 18 miles from the mainland and about 60 miles west of Los Angeles. The island, home to a national park, is known for its rugged hiking trails and picturesque shoreline.
This is a developing story. Some things that get reported by the media may later turn out to be wrong. We will focus on reports from police officials and other authorities, credible news outlets and reporters who are at the scene. We will update as the situation develops.