When the mayday call came in, authorities in Southern California quickly realized they were facing just about the worst firefighting scenario imaginable: A boat fully ablaze far out to sea in the middle of the night with one narrow stairway out for over 30 sleeping passengers.
“You couldn’t ask for a worse situation,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said at a news conference Monday.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll says at least 25 people on a recreational scuba-diving trip died and the search will continue through the night for the nine others still missing. He says five others have been found but not recovered due to unsafe conditions under the boat, which sank in about 60 feet (18 meters) of water.
Five crew members sleeping on the top deck jumped off and took a dinghy to safety. Two had minor injuries.
Meanwhile, authorities opened a family assistance center where counseling was being provided to relatives of those onboard. None of their names were immediately released.
The missing and dead were among 39 passengers and crew who had departed Santa Barbara’s Channel Islands Harbor on Saturday aboard the boat Conception for a Labor Day weekend scuba-diving trip.
The fire broke out about 3 a.m. as the Conception was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles. The crew appeared to quickly call for help.
“The call was garbled, it was not that clear, but we were able to get some information out of it to send vessels,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney.
Capt. Paul Amaral of the vessel assistance company TowBoatUS also launched a fast boat from Ventura Harbor, but it was some 30 miles (48 kilometers) away. By the time it got there around 5 a.m. a Coast Guard helicopter and a fireboat were on scene.
Amaral said he first searched the water and shoreline, then turned back to the Conception, which was adrift and going aground. He attached a line and pulled it into deeper water where the fireboats could reach.
“We launched that boat knowing that the vessel was on fire, lots of people aboard,” he told The Associated Press.
The five crew members, meanwhile, had taken their dingy to a private fishing boat, The Grape Escape, that was anchored near the north shore of Santa Cruz Island.
That boat’s owners, Bob and Shirley Hansen, told The New York Times they were asleep when they heard pounding on the side of their 60-foot (18-meter) vessel about 3:30 a.m. and discovered the frightened crew members.
“When we looked out, the other boat was totally engulfed in flames, from stem to stern,” Hansen said. “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.”
Hansen said two of the crew members went back toward the Conception looking for survivors but found no one.
Four bodies had injuries consistent with drowning, Kroll said.
It wasn’t immediately clear when the other bodies that have been found might be retrieved or when divers could search the boat for others.
“It’s upside down in relatively shallow water with receding tides that are moving it around,” Brown said. Investigators have not yet determined a cause for the fire.
The 75-foot (23-meter) Conception was on a three-day excursion to the chain of rugged, wind-swept isles that form Channel Islands National Park in the Pacific Ocean west of Los Angeles. The fire broke out as the boat sat anchored in Platt’s Harbor off Santa Cruz Island.
The Conception, based in Santa Barbara Harbor on the mainland, was owned by Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics, founded in 1974. A memorial outside Truth Aquatics in the Santa Barbara Harbor grew Monday night as mourners came to pay their respects.
Dave Reid, who runs an underwater camera manufacturing business with his wife, Terry Schuller, and has traveled on the Conception and two other boats in Truth Aquatics’ fleet, said he considered all three among the best and safest.
“When you see the boats they are always immaculate,” he said. “I wouldn’t hesitate at all to go on one again. Of all the boat companies, that would be one of the ones I wouldn’t think this would happen to.”
His wife said Truth Aquatics crews have always been meticulous in going over safety instructions at the beginning of every trip she’s been on.
“They tell you where the life jackets are, how to put them on … the exits, where the fire extinguishers are, on every single trip,” said Schuller. “They are the best, the absolute best.”
Both said the sleeping area is comfortable but tight, however, with bunk beds stacked next to one another on the lowest deck. Coming up to the top deck to get off requires navigating a narrow stairway with only one exit.
If the fire was fast-moving, Reid said, it’s very likely divers couldn’t escape and the crew couldn’t get to them.
Coast Guard records show all safety violations from the last five years were quickly addressed by the boat’s owners. Some safety violations were related to fire safety. A 2016 inspection resulted in owners replacing the heat detector in the galley and one in 2014 cited a leaky fire hose.
The Conception was chartered by Worldwide Diving Adventures, which says on its website that it has been taking divers on such expeditions since the 1970s.
Andy Taylor, owner of Blue Water Hunter Dive Shop in Santa Barbara, said he discussed dive conditions with several people Friday as they were buying some last-minute things before boarding the Conception. Taylor said he often sends divers to Truth Aquatics for trips and he has friends who have crewed on the Conception.
He said he was on the phone all day Monday as friends checked to make sure he wasn’t on the boat.
“Right now it’s a big question of who was on there and who wasn’t,” he said. “I’m scared to see the list of names, honestly.”
Associated Press writers John Antczak, John Rogers, Frank Baker and Justin Pritchard in Los Angeles, Stephanie Mullen in San Francisco, Michael R. Blood in Oxnard, California, and Michael Balsamo in Washington contributed to this story.