UPDATED 11:00 AM PT — Tuesday, September 3, 2019
The Coast Guard is suspending its search and rescue operation off the coast of California for missing boat passengers. While speaking at a press conference Tuesday, officials said the operation is officially in its recovery phase after no survivors were found on board the vessel.
Authorities are now working to stabilize the wreckage to allow divers better access to recover bodies from inside the sunken vessel. A total of 20 bodies, including 11 females and nine males, have been found so far. This comes as another 14 passengers remain unaccounted for.
Authorities are now collecting DNA to begin the identification process. Many of the victims are from the San Francisco, San Jose, and Santa Cruz area.
The boat caught fire early Monday off Santa Cruz Island, which is north of Los Angeles, with most of the passengers asleep when the fire began. Flames broke out just after 3:00 AM local time aboard “The Conception,” which was a commercial diving boat. Five crew members were already awake when the fire began, but all divers were asleep below deck.
“The majority of the people were the passengers on the ship and the sleeping compartment was on the bottom deck of the ship, so they would’ve been sound asleep when this fire started. So you can imagine that of all scenarios — to be in a remote location, have a fire that occurs, have limited, if any, firefighting capabilities that could address that and then to have all of a sudden a fire that spread very, very rapidly. You couldn’t ask for a worse situation.”
— Sheriff Bill Brown, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office
Those five crew members were able to escape the flames on a dingy, and were rescued by good Samaritans on a passing boat. The Coast Guard and local fire departments quickly responded. Rescue teams searched the coastline by air and sea for hours, looking for any survivors. They recovered several bodies and found others on the ocean floor.
Questions are now being raised about how this fire broke out. The boat had been used for diving trips for decades and Coast Guard records show the boat’s owners were quick to address safety concerns and violations.
The NTSB and Coast Guard are now on site to aid in investigation efforts as friends and family members demand answers for this tragic event.