34 dead in California boat tragedy

Officials on Tuesday said that 34 people died after a boat packed with scuba divers caught fire near an island off the Southern California coast and they have called off search efforts for survivors.

The Coast Guard and law enforcement said no one has been found alive after flames tore through the dive boat early Monday as passengers on a recreational scuba diving trip slept below deck.

The Conceon carried 33 passengers and six crew members, and only five of the crew sleeping on the top deck were able to escape by jumping off and taking a small boat to safety. Investigators have not yet determined how the fire broke out.

Santa Barbara County Bill Brown said the bodies of 20 victims have been recovered and divers have seen between four and six others in the sunken wreckage. He said authorities are trying to stabilize the boat that sank in about 60 feet (18 meters of water so divers can recover those remains.

Most need to be identified by DNA analysis and officials are collecting samples from family members, Brown said.

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

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

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

The fire broke out about 3 am Monday as the Conceon was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, about 90 miles (145 kilometers west of Los Angeles. The crew appeared to quickly call for help.

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

Captain Paul Amaral of the vessel assistance company TowBoatUS also launched a fast boat from Ventura Harbor, but it was some 30 miles (48 kilometers away. By the time it got there around 5 a.m., a Coast Guard helicopter and a fireboat were on scene.

Amaral said he first searched the water and shoreline, then turned back to the Conceon, 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 told The Associated Press.

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

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 60-foot (18-meter vessel about 3:30 a.m. and discovered the frightened crew members.

“When we looked out, the other boat was totally engulfed in flames, from stem to stern,” 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.” Hansen said two of the crew members went back toward the Conceon looking for survivors but found no one.

The 75-foot (23-meter Conceon 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 Harbor off Santa Cruz Island.

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

Dave Reid, who runs an underwater camera manufacturing business with his wife, Terry Schuller, and has traveled on the Conceon and two other boats in Truth Aquatics’ fleet, said he considered all three among the best and safest.

“When you see the boats they are always immaculate,” he said. “I wouldn’t hesitate at all to go on one again. Of all the boat companies, that would be one of the ones I wouldn’t think this would happen to.” His wife said Truth Aquatics crews have always been meticulous in going over safety instructions at the beginning of every trip she’s been on.