Final victim of Santa Barbara dive boat fire recovered

Sep 12, 2019

The bodies of  34 victims have now been recovered, after a Santa Barbara dive boat caught fire early Labor Day morning near Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands. The 75-foot vessel, the 'Conception,' was a commercial diving boat with 39 people aboard. Five crew members survived. The cause of the fire is currently being investigated.  

UPDATE 09/12/19 5 PM: The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) today released a preliminary report on its investigation into the 'Conception' disaster. On Wednesday afternoon, divers working with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office recovered the body of the last missing passenger. The Coast Guard announced it was launching its highest-level investigation into the deadly fire, and issued a safety bulletin this week that urges boaters to make sure escape hatches are clearly identified, ensure required firefighting equipment is working and stop unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries.

UPDATE 09/06/19 4 PM: A public vigil is planned for Friday evening (Sept. 6) in Santa Barbara for the victims of the ‘Conception’ boat fire, taking place between 6:30 and 7:30 pm at Chase Palm Park.

Dive teams continue to search for the body of a missing passenger, presumed to have died in the fire. Meanwhile, a salvage crew is in the process of removing the boat’s wreckage from the water. A crane barge will transport it to a secure location for forensic examination.

23 of the victims have been identified by the Santa Barbara Coroner’s Office. Authorities released a portion of the names whose next of kin have been notified. Two of the victims were from Goleta and Santa Barbara, both 26 years old.

The boat’s designer and a surviving crew member told media outlets and investigators they believe the fire may have been sparked by a lithium-ion battery from one of the many cameras, computers and cell phones charging below deck.

The Santa Barbara company that owns the ‘Conception’ and operates two other dive boats— Truth Aquatics, Inc.—has filed a petition in U.S. district court in an attempt to limit its liability under a 1850s-era provision of maritime law.

UPDATE 09/05/19 4 PM: The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a final press conference Thursday afternoon on its investigation into the Labor Day fatal dive boat fire in the Channel Islands. NTSB spokesperson Jennifer Homendy said investigators will be on the scene for the next week, and will issue a preliminary report next-week.

After interviewing the surviving crew members, Homedy said investigators are compiling a timeline of events in the minutes before and after the fire started on the ‘Conception.’

“One crew member reported that he awoke to a noise and left his bunk and [went] out of the wheelhouse deck and saw flames erupting from the galley area,” Homendy said.

Homedy went on to describe what they’ve learned so far from the crew about their initial actions. The NTSB is focused on safety issues, and whether the agency should issue recommendations aimed at preventing future similar accidents.

“That's something we have to look at—the adequacy of fire suppression systems, of course, and including the adequacy of the smoke detector system,” Homendy said. “Which in this case was not connected throughout the ship through any sort of wiring from the bunk room up to the bridge.”

When the ‘Conception’ was built, there were no requirements for smoke detectors to be wired to the boat’s wheelhouse from elsewhere in the vessel. As she wrapped up the press conference, Homedy said the public has helped their investigation.

“We have gotten an overwhelmingly fantastic response from the public to witness@NTSB.gov,” Homendy said. “I really want to thank everyone who has sent in photos and videos, and just tips, because you do not know how important that is to our investigation.”

Updates on the investigation will be noticed on the NTSB’s website.

UPDATE 9/04/19 11:45 AM: Underwater search efforts continued Wednesday for the last remaining victim of Monday morning’s Santa Barbara dive boat fire off the Channel Islands. Erik Rainey with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s office said 13 more bodies were recovered Tuesday, bringing the death toll to 33.

“The majority of the victims were recovered with the technical expertise of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s dive team, who were able to penetrate into the boat to recover the victims,” Rainey said in an email Wednesday morning.

Rainey said dive teams are using sonar technology to map the ocean floor of the search area, which will allow divers to search specific areas.

Once dive teams have recovered the final victim, the National Transportation Safety Board will be able to enter the wreckage of the boat to investigate the cause of the deadly fire.

UPDATE 09/03/19 6 PM: The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)  announced Tuesday afternoon the agency would be leading the investigation into Monday’s dive boat fire.

Jennifer Homendy, a board member with the NTSB spoke outside the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s headquarters.

"I am 100% confident that our investigators will determine the cause of this fire, why it occurred, how it occurred, and what is needed to prevent it from happening again,” Homendy said.

Homendy called the boat fire a "major marine casualty,” and that investigators will interview surviving crew members, the companies involved and first responders. They will also look at how the fire was extinguished.

“I just want to add, this is not the first fire we have investigated onboard a small passenger vessel,” Homendy said.

She referred to a fire on a boat carrying 53 people off the coast of Florida in 2018, when an overheated engine set off a high temperature alarm. The captain responded by leaving the boat idling instead of turning it off, which led to a fire where 15 passengers were injured and one later died. In its report, the NTSB found safety issues such as insufficient preventative maintenance, crew training and fire detection. It also found the company had not properly instructed the boat’s captain on how to respond to high-temperature alarms.

The lead investigator for the 'Conception' fire is Adam Tucker. According to his LinkedIn profile, Tucker has a ten-year background in maritime safety on cruise ships. He will be leading a 16-person investigation team.

In response to questions about whether the 'Conception' had a so-called black box recorder onboard that could help explain the cause of the fire, Tucker said there isn’t a requirement that a boat that size should have one.

“Furthermore, we have not been informed that vessel was fitted voluntarily with a black box,” Tucker said.

Homendy said the NTSB will be in Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands conducting the investigation for seven to ten days, but it could take up to two years to determine the cause of the fire. Homendy said the NTSB expects to issue a preliminary report much earlier, and will be holding daily press briefings into the near future.

Homendy said the public can follow the NTSB on Twitter for updates. She is also asking for the public’s assistance: anyone with photos, videos or any other information pertaining to the investigation is invited to email the agency at witness@NTSB.gov.  

UPDATE 09/03/19 10 AM: 20 bodies have been recovered, 11 female and nine male. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Tuesday morning divers have found more bodies in the water, but they are difficult to retreive due to the state of the boat wreckage. He said diving teams would work again Tuesday to try to safely enter the submerged boat. Brown said he believes the remaining victims are still inside the boat. Brown said it does appear the passengers were trapped below deck when the fire broke out. 

Brown said 100 calls have been made to the family assistance hotline from people believing they had family and loved ones on the boat. Brown said his department would be using DNA testing from family members to help identify the bodies as, "it was an extraordinary hot fire and there are signs of extreme thermal damage."

Brown said it appears the majority of the victims, possibly ranging in ages from 17 to 70, were from the Santa Cruz and San Francisco Bay areas of California. 

U.S. Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester said the Coast Guard suspended search and rescue efforts at 9:40 a.m., just under 24 hours after they began, as no other individuals were found in the water nor on the island shore. Rochester said they are now in a search and recovery phase as it appears there are no other survivors. 

Rochester said the Coast Guard did not have more information about the cause of the fire, outside the initial mayday audio recording. Rochester and Brown said there is confusion about the mayday calls, saying the first may have come came from the 'Conception,' and possibly later calls from a nearby private boat, the "Grape Escape," which initially helped the surviving crew members.

Brown said the surviving crew members are still being interviewed. 

UPDATE 10:15 PM: The Associated Press is reporting 25 bodies have been recovered as of Monday night. A spokesperson with the Santa Barbara County joint operations center said she could confirm victims continue to be processed by the cornor's office. The next official announcement regarding a number of victims will take place at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

UPDATE 5:15 PM: Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Monday afternoon the scuba trip departed from Santa Barbara early Saturday morning, and was scheduled to return Monday morning. The boat became engulfed in flames around 3:30 a.m. shortly after a mayday call. Firefighting crews from multiple agencies were actively fighting the fire when the boat sank around 7:20 a.m.

Five rescued crewmembers were transported to Ventura Harbor, where they are being interviewed by Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office investigators.

Brown said dive teams are currently in the water to recover bodies found on the seabed, but he wasn't sure when or how they would be able to remove bodies from inside the boat, which is lying upside down on the ocean floor, mostly submerged and unstable. 

Brown called the fire a "worst-case scenario."

"Fire is the scurge of any ship," Brown said. "The majority of the [victims and missing] were the passengers on the ship, and the sleeping compartment was on the bottom deck of the ship, so they would have been sound asleep. Of all scenarios, to be in a remote location, have a fire that occurs with limited, or any firefighting capabilities—you couldn't ask for a worse situation."

U.S. Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester said the boat, operated by the Santa Barbara company Truth Aquatics, was inspected annually by the Coast Guard and was "in full compliance."

According to Rochester, in the early morning mayday distress call between someone on the boat and Coast Guard dispatch, the caller identified himself as the captain of the boat. He is heard in the audio saying he can’t breath. The Coast Guard operator asks him if he can get the ship’s 34 passengers out through a safety hatch, but it's still not clear if there was one. 

Rochester said that type of boat should have had an escape hatch from the belowdeck cabins. California Senator Dianne Feinstein Monday called for an interagency investigation into whether all safety regulations were followed.

Some in the Central Coast diving community, like SLO Ocean Currents in San Luis Obispo, have taken to social media to praise the 'Conception’s operator, Truth Aquatics, for decades of safe trips.

On Truth Aquatics' website, the boat's owner and captain is listed as Jerry Boylan, a licenced captain with the company since 1985.

Rochester said the U.S. Coast Guard would continue searching the waters as well as the shore of Santa Cruz Island for possible survivors through Tuesday morning.

"We all should be prepared to move into the worst outcome," Rochester said. 

Brown said authorities had a full passenger list, but wouldn't be releasing any names until next-of-kin were notified. 

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. Brown said nothing has indicated the fire was the result of an explosion, but he also said the ferocity of the blaze "could have been" the result of scuba or propane tanks exploding.

Because of the location and nature of the boat fire in shared waters, Bown said the investigation involves multiple invested agencies. Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley said the county shares jurisdiction of the waterways around Santa Cruz Island with the United States Attorney's Office. 

The boat was operated by Truth Aquatics of Santa Barbara, founded in 1974. According to the company's website, it began offering hiking trips in the Channel Islands National Park in 1998. Now it offers “California scuba diving in the kelp forests around the Channel Islands and Big Sur."

UPDATE 4:15 PM: Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said the unidentified bodies of two adult men and two adult women have been found. Four more bodies were discovered on the ocean floor. 

UPDATE 12:30 PM: Multiple news outlets are reporting that four bodies have been recovered near the site of the fire, but representatives for Santa Barbara County Fire and the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management could not confirm that number.

ORIGINAL STORY PUBLISHED 09/02/19 

Around 3:15 a.m. U.S. Coast Guard watchstanders and other boats in Santa Barbara and Ventura County waters heard a radio mayday call of a boat on fire near Santa Cruz Island. Multiple agencies, including the Coast Guard, Santa Barbara County Fire Department and the Ventura County Fire Department, responded by boat and helicopter.

The Coast Guard said a private vessel, the "Great Escape," also responded and rescued five crew members, at  least one of whom is believed to be injured.

It is believed the passengers were on a three-day scuba diving expedition and were asleep when the fire broke out.

“The crew quarters are above [deck] and the passengers are below,” said Santa Barbara County Fire spokesperson Mike Eliason.

U.S. Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester said the surviving crew members were, "already awake and on the bridge, and they jumped off" when fire engulfed the boat about 20 yards from the shore.

Eliason said the cause of fire is still unknown.

“We have investigators there that are assisting the [Santa Barbara County] Sheriff’s Department, but it’s too early to determine a cause,” Eliason said. “They are going to interview the crew members and try to determine what happened.”

Elaison said the vessel sunk in 64 feet of water and the bow of the vessel is sticking above the [water’s] surface. Eliason said crews were still searching the area for the 34 remaining passengers, who are believed to have been aboard at the time of the fire.

“At this point, it is sadly going to become a recovery operation,” Eliason said.

Santa Barbara County Fire and the Santa Barbara County Coroner's Bureau are heading up recovery operations.

“They will begin the grim task of going underwater and making the recovery of those still on board,” Eliason said.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department is heading up the investigation. A press conference is scheduled at 4 p.m. at Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s headquarters.

A family assistance center for those affected by the fire is set up at Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara. There is a family assistance hotline at (833) 688-5551.

This story is being updated as more information becomes available.