Tuesday 17 September 2019

25 bodies found after scuba dive boat catches fire off California

Nine people are still missing.

A boat is engulfed in flames after a deadly fire broke out aboard the commercial scuba diving vessel off the Southern California coast (Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)
A boat is engulfed in flames after a deadly fire broke out aboard the commercial scuba diving vessel off the Southern California coast (Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)

By Stefanie Dazio, Associated Press

Twenty-five people have been killed and nine others are still missing after a boat packed with Scuba divers caught fire near an island off the coast of Southern California.

The 75ft dive boat Conception became engulfed in flames before dawn as passengers on a recreational diving trip slept below deck.

“You couldn’t ask for a worse situation,” Santa Barbara county sheriff Bill Brown told reporters.

Coast Guard Lt Cmdr Matthew Kroll said at least 25 people had died.

He said 20 bodies had been recovered and five others had been located but not retrieved due to unsafe conditions under the boat, which sank in about 60ft of water.

Lt Cmdr Kroll said the count of those found was based on initial reports and needed to be confirmed through post-mortem examinations.

The search for the missing went on through the night, and fog and low clouds on Tuesday were not expected to limit the search crews in their efforts, Santa Barbara City Fire Department spokeswoman Amber Anderson said.

ipanews_bfc82664-c086-4074-89d2-45cab9482caf_embedded245000287
VCFD firefighters respond to the boat fire (Ventura County Fire Department/AP)

Five crew members sleeping on the top deck jumped off after fire broke out, and took a dinghy to safety.

Two suffered minor injuries. A sixth crew member is among the missing

Meanwhile, authorities opened a family assistance centre where counselling is being provided to relatives of those on board. No names were immediately released.

One passenger, marine biologist and veteran diver Kristy Finstad, 41, was identified in a Facebook post by her brother, Brett Harmeling of Houston.

Mr Harmeling wrote: “Please pray for my sister Kristy!! She was leading a dive trip on this boat.”

The missing and dead were among 39 passengers and crew who had departed Santa Barbara Harbour on Saturday aboard the boat for a Labour Day holiday weekend trip.

The fire broke out at about 3am as the Conception was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, about 90 miles west of Los Angeles.

The crew appeared to quickly call for help.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney said: “The call was garbled, it was not that clear, but we were able to get some information out of it to send vessels.”

Captain Paul Amaral of the vessel assistance company TowBoatUS also launched a fast boat from Ventura Harbour, but it was some 30 miles away. By the time it got there around 5am, a Coast Guard helicopter and a fireboat were on the scene.

Capt Amaral said he first searched the water and shoreline, then turned back to the Conception, which was adrift.

He attached a line and pulled it into deeper water so the fireboats could reach it.

“We launched that boat knowing that the vessel was on fire, lots of people aboard,” he said.

The five crew members, meanwhile, went on the dinghy to a private fishing boat, The Grape Escape, which was anchored near the north shore of Santa Cruz Island.

ipanews_bfc82664-c086-4074-89d2-45cab9482caf_embedded245006779
Maya Upton, of Santa Barbara, places flowers outside of the Sea Landing at Santa Barbara Harbour (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

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 60ft vessel about 3.30am and discovered the frightened crew members.

“When we looked out, the other boat was totally engulfed in flames, from stem to stern,” Mr 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.”

Mr 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, Mr Kroll said.

ipanews_bfc82664-c086-4074-89d2-45cab9482caf_embedded245009676
People pay their respects to the dead (AP)

It is not immediately clear when the other bodies that have been found might be retrieved, or when divers could search the boat for others.

Investigators have not yet determined a cause for the fire.

The 75ft 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 Harbour off Santa Cruz Island.

The Conception, based in Santa Barbara Harbour on the mainland, was owned by Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics, founded in 1974. A memorial outside Truth Aquatics in the Santa Barbara Harbour grew on Monday night as mourners came to pay their respects.

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.

The search was later suspended with 34 people now presumed dead.

Santa Barbara County’s coroner Bill Brown said Tuesday that the bodies of 20 victims have been recovered and divers have seen between and four and six others in the sunken wreckage, which must be stabilised.

PA Media

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News