Rescue efforts for dive boat victims called off
The search for survivors of Monday morning’s dive boat fire off the coast of Santa Cruz Island has been called off. All 34 passengers are presumed to be dead
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown broke the news at a Tuesday morning press conference at the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office headquarters.
“Thus far the victims have only been identified as 11 female and nine male remains,” said Sheriff Brown of the 20 bodies recovered from the wreckage of the 72-foot Conception, owned by Truth Aquatics of Santa Barbara.
Sheriff Brown said divers saw an additional four to six bodies in the wreckage Monday evening but were unable to recover them before nightfall.
“We’re hoping we can get to them today,” he said.
The position of the wreckage is complicating the recovery efforts. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said the boat appears to be upside down roughly 65 feet under water.
“We are creating a salvage plan to ensure that, one, first and foremost, is the safety of the divers and the responders on scene,” said Capt. Rochester, who explained that crews are working to determine if it is possible to recover the sunken boat.
“If the vessel is inverted, upside down it’s going to have equipment hanging down on it. So, we certainly don’t want to put our divers in any kind of distress or harm’s way,” she said.
Sheriff’s and the Coast Guard officials are working to map out a search area for evidence and the remaining 14 victims, based on ocean currents and the half-mile debris field
Capt. Rochester said those search efforts will be focused on victim recovery, not rescue as of 9:40 a.m. Tuesday.
“It is never an easy decision to suspend search efforts. … We have suspended these search efforts due to no additional individuals having been witnessed entering the water. Our last aircraft flight this morning has revealed that no additional signs of distress or debris has been witnessed,” said Capt. Rochester.
The Coast Guard deployed three helicopter crews and various surface assets to conduct seven missions, covering 160 miles around the scene of the wreckage.
Sheriff Brown said the Coroner’s Bureau is using rapid DNA testing to identify the bodies that have been recovered. Testing is necessary to confirm the identities of the bodies because they suffered significant heat damage.
Family members are being contacted to provide DNA samples for comparison.
Students from Pacific Collegiate School, a charter high school in Santa Cruz, were apparently aboard the dive boat. A school official confirmed the students were on the boat, but not for a school-organized trip.
Sheriff Brown did not confirm the information, but said the youngest victim was 17 years old and others
were in their 60s. Most of the victims were from the Santa Cruz and San Jose areas.
Capt. Rochester revealed earlier reports that indicated the passengers were locked in the third level sleeping quarters of the boat appear to be inaccurate.
“There are no locked doors in accommodation spaces on these vessels. The only privacy that you have are curtains,” said Capt. Rochester, who said that information was taken from the emergency radio call and speculated that communication may have been unclear due to the activity from the fire.
Sheriff Brown added that there were two escape routes, one emergency exit and another set of stairs that were likely blocked by the fire.
Capt. Rochester said the Conception passed a safety inspection in August of either 2018 or this year. The inspection verified the boat was properly equipped with fire extinguishers, fire alarms and a fire suppression system.
She said the boat was supposed 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 third level with the passengers.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but sheriff’s officials say reports of an explosion on the boat came only after the fire had already broken out.
The National Transportation Safety Board announced Tuesday afternoon that the federal agency is leading the safety investigation on the Conception boat fire.
Jennifer Homendy, a board member with the NTSB, made the announcement during a press conference and said the U.S. Coast Guard has enforcement authority of vessel operations and will be conducting its own safety and enforcement investigation.
The NTSB investigative team will include 16 people led by Adam Tucker, who has been working in the NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety for “quite some time” and has experience in passenger vessel operations, Ms. Homendy said.
In addition to the investigators, the NTSB has three staff from its family assistance team that will be working to provide families with the resources and information they need.
The investigators were expected to hold an organizational meeting Tuesday night to establish investigative parties, which are individuals with technical expertise that help obtain factual information needed for the investigation. Ms. Homendy said it was likely the NTSB would form investigative groups to drill down on specific aspects of the investigation.
“We expect to be on scene about seven to 10 days,” she said. “During that time our investigators will be collecting the perishable evidence. We will not be determining the cause of the fire while on scene. That comes later in the investigative process.”
The NTSB has begun identifying witnesses for interviews and documents needed for the investigation. The federal agency is seeking the public’s help and is seeking photos, videos or other information that would assist the investigation. Those with materials are asked to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The NTSB will be interviewing the surviving crew members and companies involved, first responders and others involved in the response, Ms. Homendy said.
Investigators will be looking to find out about the training of the crew members, including firefighting training, whether there were fire extinguishers on board and if items like life jackets and lifeboats were on board.
Mr. Tucker said investigators have not talked to the dive teams, who are still in active recovery. Ms. Homendy said that the recovery process is not something that NTSB wants to interfere with but that investigators would be in contact with the dive team at some point.
“I am 100 percent 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,” Ms. Homendy said.
A preliminary report is expected to be issued within 10 days of the incident and the final report is expected within 12 to 24 months, she added.