SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — A middle-of-the-night fire swept through a boat carrying recreational scuba divers anchored near an island off the Southern California coast early Monday, leaving at least 25 dead and nine others missing.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr Matthew Kroll said Monday night that 25 people had died. Five of six crew members on the Conception escaped by jumping into an inflatable boat they steered to a nearby vessel.
Rescuers recovered four bodies about 90 miles (145 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles just off Santa Cruz Island and spotted four others on the ocean floor near where the boat sank about 20 yards (18 meters) from shore. They planned to continue searching for survivors, but Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester cautioned it was unlikely anyone else would be found alive.
As the investigation continues, questions are being raised about the safety of the boat. A Santa Barbara man who was in San Diego Monday for a fishing trip said safety was always paramount whenever he was on the Conception - making Monday's tragedy all the more inconceivable.
Tony Olive-Jones said he and his family have gone on charter trips aboard the the Conception several times over the years.
“It is definitely a part of Santa Barbara. It has been there since before my children. Thirty-plus years. It is just horrific to hear the news,” he said.
Up until Monday’s accident, the Conception had a sterling safety record.
“They followed the strictest protocols. I always felt safe,” said Tony.
The 75-foot commercial diving boat was operating by Truth Aquatics, a well-respected brand in the industry. According to safety records, the Conception had routinely passed all Coast Guard inspections.
A sketch of the boat showed the layout below-deck of the Conception with 32 beds configured as either double or triple bunks.
Tony said that as a dive boat, there would have been many scuba tanks on board.
“Unfortunately, they got all this gas on the boat, so if there is a fire, you are looking at devastation. There is going to be an explosion. There is just no way you can get out of that boat once the deck is on fire. No escape hatches. No access. You are pretty much limited at that point,” he said.
Police have interviewed the five crew members who survived a boat fire off the Southern California coast. No cause for the fire has been identified and authorities says at this stage there's no reason to believe it involved a criminal act.
Meanwhile, authorities opened a family assistance center where counseling was being provided to relatives of those on board. None of their names were immediately released.