The remains of 33 of the people who were on board the Conception dive boat that caught fire Monday morning have been recovered, while one passenger remains unaccounted for.
Thirteen victims were recovered Tuesday by search and rescue crews, combined with the 20 that had previously been found. The majority of the victims were recovered by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s dive team, who were able to penetrate into the submerged vessel to recover the victims, said Lt. Erik Raney, spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.
The sheriff’s Coroner’s Bureau is charged with identifying each victim and determining the cause and manner of death. The remains that have been recovered have “suffered varying degrees of damage” and will require DNA analysis, Lt. Raney said.
The search for the last remaining victim continued Wednesday. Los Angeles Port Police used sonar mapping technology to map the ocean floor of the designated search area, which allowed divers to target specific areas of interest.
Multiple law enforcement agencies were involved in the search and recovery.
“Search and recovery efforts will continue in an effort to locate the last victim as well as gather information for investigators to assist in determining the cause of the disaster,” Lt. Raney said.
Several large tents were sent up near the Santa Barbara Harbor Wednesday afternoon to assist the FBI and National Transportation and Safety Board if any evidence or boat parts were recovered.
Jennifer Homendy, board member of the NTSB, said at a press conference Wednesday that there are plans to try and salvage the vessel.
Investigators are documenting the wreckage using similar sonar mapping technology that assisted divers.
“We want as much video and digital images as we can get before that vessel is moved,” Ms. Homendy said. “We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to raise it soon.”
Coast Guard Capt. Jason Neubauer told reporters after the press conference that there is concern that the vessel burned all the way to the water line and it was unclear what evidence could be recovered.
One day after FBI investigators took a tour of the Vision, which is owned and operated by the same company – Truth Aquatics – as Conception, NTSB and Coast Guard investigators took a tour of the vessel Wednesday.
Some of the parties involved in the NTSB investigation include: the U.S. Coast Guard; Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department; Santa Barbara County Fire Department; and Truth Aquatics.
The parties of technical experts will provide factual information to NTSB investigators, which will be used to develop the findings and recommendations of the investigation. In addition, investigative groups have been formed and include a review of the operations, engineering, survival factors and fire safety surrounding the incident.
A preliminary report is expected within 10 days, but that will not include a probable cause or findings. The final report is expected within 12 to 18 months.
“In that time if we have safety concerns we will, and have many times in the past, issue urgent safety recommendations before a final report is issued,” Ms. Homendy said.
Interviews began Wednesday and are expected to continue over the next several days. Those who have been interviewed include: the vessel owner and operator; the second galley; the second captain; one of the deck hands and the vessel’s captains. The contents of the interviews were not disclosed out of fear of contaminating the investigation or future interviews, Ms. Homendy said.
Additional interviews are planned with: the first galley; the owners of the Good Samaritan vessel that was on scene; Coast Guard inspectors; first responders; other company employees, including past employees; and others who have contacted investigators via email.
Investigators also met with the family members of the victims for a time Wednesday.
“This was a horrific tragedy and it is clear that they are devastated and our hearts go out to them,” Ms. Homendy said. “I just really wanted to make sure that we communicated to them because those families are why we are here. That’s why we do the job we do.”
The NTSB has requested a number of documents, including: Coast Guard recordings during search and rescue; 911 dispatch records; maintenance records; training; licensing; operation manuals; policies and procedures; and toxicology information.
Capt. Jason Neubauer told reporters that four of the five crew members who survived underwent toxicology examination. Alcohol results have come back negative and drug testing results are pending. The other survivor was unable to be tested because they were being transported to the hospital.
Capt. Neubauer has been with the Coast Guard for 31 years and served as chairman of the Marine Corps investigation into the sinking of the Alfaro, a steamship that sunk Oct. 1, 2015, and claimed the lives of 33 mariners.
Neither the NTSB or Coast Guard have the authority to prevent Truth Aquatics from operations, but investigators said Wednesday that neither Vision or Truth were in operation at this time.
“I think this is a mutual decision at this point while the investigation is in the initial stages,” Capt. Neubauer told reporters.
Conception is considered a small passenger vessel and is referred to as a “T-Boat.” Regulations allow those vessels to carry at least 49 passengers overnight and T-Boats are not required to be equipped with a sprinkler system, Capt. Neubauer said.
As was stated by Sheriff Bill Brown at a press conference Tuesday, there were two escape routes – one emergency exit and another set of stairs that were likely blocked by the fire.
Capt. Neubauer said that the Mayday call that has been circulated by several media outlets will need to be further analyzed because “it’s only one part of the conversation.”
Conception passed a safety inspection in August of 2018 or this year and the inspection verified the boat was properly equipped with fire extinguishers, fire alarms and a fire suppression system.
The boat is required to have a night watchman on duty, but it’s not clear whether the crew was asleep at the time.
Five crew members were able to escape the fire from their upper level living quarters, while one crew member was believed to be trapped on the lower level with the passengers.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation. Those who have photos or images that would assist the investigation are asked to email email@example.com.