‘You couldn’t ask for a worse-case situation’
In one of the most catastrophic boating incidents in Santa Barbara County history, at least 25 people have died with nine more still unaccounted for after Conception, a dive boat that is based out of the Santa Barbara Harbor and owned by Truth Aquatics, was engulfed in flames during a Labor Day weekend trip to the Channel Islands.
Five crew members escaped and were rescued by good Samaritans near the Platts Harbor portion of Santa Cruz Island. The crew was already atop the vessel at 3:15 a.m., around the time that a garbled “mayday” call was received by the U.S. Coast Guard.
During a press conference at Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office headquarters on Monday afternoon, both Sheriff Bill Brown and U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester expressed diminishing hope that any passenger would be found alive.
“I think we should all be prepared to move into the worst outcome,” Capt. Rochester said.
The 75-foot Conception, one of three dive boats owned by Truth Aquatics, sunk in just more than 60 feet of water just after 7:20 a.m. Monday while fire officials attempted to put out the blaze. The vessel has since inverted along the ocean floor, creating an obstacle for the search-and-rescue effort, as well as for potentially finding more bodies.
Sheriff Brown said the four bodies that have been recovered and delivered to the Coroner’s Bureau will need to be identified through DNA samples. The bureau is also responsible for notifying the next of kin and determining the cause of death, both of which are in process.
Due to the volume of potential victims and in an effort to expedite the process, both the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office and Sacramento County Coroner’s Office will be aiding in the investigation.
“We can only identify them at this point as two adult males and two adult females,” said Sheriff Brown while flanked by Santa Barbara legislators Rep. Salad Carbajal, Sen. Hannah Beth Jackson, Assemblywoman Monique Limon and county Supervisors Gregg Hart and Joan Hartmann.
“The four victims we have recovered as of now will need to be identified through DNA and that may take some time. The condition of the remains that are recovered subsequently will determine the speed at which we are able to identify any of the victims.”
Despite some reports that drowning was the cause of death, sheriff’s officials indicated it was too early to make that determination.
Sheriff Brown also cast doubt over the investigation becoming one that is criminal in nature.
“(There will be) an investigation to see if there was any criminal activity, but we have no reason to suspect that there was at this point,” Sheriff Brown said. “But we are going to make sure that is not the case.”
Around 3:15 a.m. Monday morning, the U.S. Coast Guard received a “mayday” call from the Conception, with the vessel already fully engulfed and with five crew members having jumped overboard.
While various news reports on Monday indicated that there was an explosion prior to the blaze, Sheriff Brown said that is simple conjecture at this point.
“Nothing in the initial broadcast from the vessel that indicated an explosion,” Sheriff Brown said.
In audio released on the broadcastify.com and picked up by numerous national media outlets Monday afternoon, you can hear the U.S. Coast Guard initially conversing with a member of the crew, subsequently asking a series of questions — although most of the answers cannot be heard on the recording.
Dispatch: “What is the emergency?”
Crew: “Reporting vessel is on fire.”
Dispatch: “Your vessel is on fire?! Is that correct?”
Dispatch: “Are you on board Conception?”
Dispatch: “There is 33 people on board the vessel that’s on fire and they can’t get off?”
Dispatch: “Are they locked inside the boat?”
Dispatch: “Can you get back on board and unlock the door so that they can get off?”
Dispatch: “You have any firefighting gear at all? Fire extinguishers or anything?”
Dispatch: “Is this the captain of the Conception? Was that all the crew that jumped off?”
Dispatch: “Is the vessel fully engulfed right now?”
Dispatch: “There’s no escape hatch for any of the people on board?”
Crew members were eventually rescued by good Samaritans aboard The Grape Escape, with four of the five eventually being transported to local hospitals in the Ventura area.
Sheriff Brown said that the crew and passengers faced a nightmare scenario.
“To be in a remote location; have a fire that occurs; limited, if any, firefighting capabilities to address that; and then to have a fire that spread very, very rapidly, you couldn’t ask for a worse-case situation,” Sheriff Brown said.
PASSING THE TESTS
While thousands heard the questioning from the Coast Guard dispatch, Capt. Rochester explained that all vessels such as the Conception are inspected annually, and the dive boat was consistently in good standing.
According to Capt. Rochester, these bigger dive boats are required to have escape hatches, as well as smoke detectors and firefighting gear.
“(The Conception) was in full compliance,” Capt. Rochester said.
The Conception first took to waters in the Santa Barbara Channel in 1981, the second dive boat launched by Truth Aquatics, owned by Roy Hauser at the time and since taken over by current owner Glen Fritzler.
Conception came seven years after the maiden vessel, Truth, debuted to acclaim from diving enthusiasts up and down the coast. Vision would be the final member of the fleet, added in 1985.
According to the company’s website, all three boats had done hundreds of excursions into the Channel Islands over the past 45 years.
CALL FOR ACTION
The tragedy received swift reaction from a plethora of California politicians, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who did not mince words over her concerns on how proper regulations could have prevented this from happening.
“It’s inconceivable that with all the safety regulations we have in place today, a fire on a boat can lead to the loss of life we saw this morning near Santa Cruz Island,” Ms. Feinstein said in a statement. “We need to know whether all applicable safety regulations were being followed and whether additional regulations need to be applied, particularly regulations concerning boats that accommodate overnight passengers.
“We must know what fire-suppression systems and other emergency equipment are in place on these boats and whether they were in working order on the Conception. And we need to understand exactly how the crew was trained and, if they were awake and above-deck, why they were unable to alert or help rescue passengers.”
Ms. Feinstein also called for an interagency investigation, one that Sheriff Brown confirmed is already underway, with the National Transportation Safety Board, FBI, Coast Guard and Santa Barbara County agencies all joining forces.
Mr. Carbajal released this statement prior to his appearance at Monday afternoon’s press conference.
“This is devastating. My deepest sympathies go out to all impacted by this horrific incident, and I am deeply grateful to our first responders, local fire officials, Coast Guard and all who are assisting on the scene,” Mr. Carbajal said. “I am in close communication with our local, state and federal authorities to provide answers about this fire, and to make sure that the affected families are supported. A family assistance center has been established at Earl Warren Showgrounds so loved ones can receive the latest information and be connected with resources. As our community faces this tragedy, we will keep working together to provide answers.”
A HELPING HAND
Late Monday morning, Santa Barbara County officials announced that they would be opening a family assistance center at the Earl Warren Showgrounds, with Suzanne Grimmesey, a county spokeswoman, said will remain open (9 a.m. to 9 p.m.) at least through Thursday — or as long as family members need aid.
Also, officials continued to encourage loved ones to call 833-688-5551 if they are looking for more information.
Ms. Grimmesey indicated that many family members were still en route to Santa Barbara, and will have access to clergy, chaplains, Red Cross, Hospice of Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, and the sheriff’s office.
“The assistance center is a place where family, friends, loved ones, community — a place where people can come to get information, to get support, to get mental health counseling and to get resources,” Ms. Grimmesey said. “We will carry on together.”
Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo was distraught over yet another heartbreaking incident for the community, but is heartened by its ability to bond together to find answers.
“Unfortunately, our government officials and our residents are accustomed to dealing with crises like this, and we know that people who respond to disaster are well-trained, and we know that they will get to the bottom of how this happened,” Ms. Murillo said. “People are asking, ‘How did this happen?’ And we will find that out. And bring peace of mind to the families that are affected.”
A press conference to update the community is planned for 10 a.m. today.