California

14 still missing, authorities end rescue operations in dive boat fire near Channel Islands

Mourners grieve at dockside memorial for victims of dive boat fire

A memorial for the victims has formed at Sea Landing in Santa Barbara the day after a deadly dive boat fire. The Conception was destroyed in an early morning fire, on Monday. Just 5 of the 39 aboard were rescued; the other 34 are presumed dead.
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A memorial for the victims has formed at Sea Landing in Santa Barbara the day after a deadly dive boat fire. The Conception was destroyed in an early morning fire, on Monday. Just 5 of the 39 aboard were rescued; the other 34 are presumed dead.

Update, 8:30 a.m. Tuesday:

The Associated Press reports that 33 bodies have been recovered. Click here for the latest information.

Original story:

Twenty bodies have been recovered and 14 people are still missing after a Santa Barbara-based dive boat caught fire and sank early Monday off the coast of the Channel Islands, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office said during a Tuesday morning news conference.

The U.S. Coast Guard suspended the search for survivors just before 10 a.m., according to Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester.

The agency made the decision after searching an area of about 160 miles for just under 24 hours, Rochester said. During that time, crews did not see anyone else entering the water or any “additional signs of distress or debris.”

Thirty-nine people were aboard the boat — 33 passengers and six crew members. Five crew members escaped from the burning boat, meaning 34 people likely didn’t survive the fire.

Eleven of the bodies are female, and 9 are male, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said. Authorities have not identified the victims.

Brown said divers saw another four to six bodies in the wreckage just before nightfall on Monday, but were unable to recover the bodies due to the positioning of the boat.

“Efforts will be made to stabilize the boat so divers can search and recover additional victims,” Brown said.

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The burned-out hull of the Santa Barbara-based Conception dive boat shortly before it sank Monday near Santa Cruz Island. Authorities believe 34 of the 39 aboard the boat died in the fire. Ventura County Fire Department

The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office sent members of its dive team to help with the rescue and recovery, said Erik Raney, spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.

Dozens of news cameras and media members surrounded authorities as they discussed the incident at the news conference Tuesday. The mood was somber, and the voices of many of those who spoke were thick with emotion.

“I can tell you that it is a very poignant duty that we have,” Brown said in response to a question about first responders’ mental health. “The humanity of this is very evident. The broad impact, the devastating impact on so many families and so many people around this community is very evident, and it’s certainly very troubling.”

There were three decks on the boat, which had a 46-person capacity. Crew members’ quarters were on the top deck, while passengers slept on the lowest deck, Brown said.

The lowest deck had two exists, but both seem to have been blocked by flames, he said. No one trying to escape was able to make it past the fire.

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FBI investigators gather outside the harbor office in Santa Barbara on Tuesday afternoon, a day after deadly fire on the Conception dive boat. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Brown said that most if not all of the victims will need to be identified through DNA analysis due to the condition of the bodies, many of which were burned. A team from the California Department of Justice will assist with its rapid DNA analysis tool that was used to identify victims of the Camp Fire, he added.

The county coroner’s bureau has done visual inspections of the bodies but has not conducted any autopsies yet, Brown said.

“The majority of the people appear to be from Santa Cruz, San Jose and the Bay Area region,” Brown said.

The National Transportation Safety Board has begun investigating the dive boat fire, according to NTSB member Jennifer Homendy.

“We expect to be on scene for seven to 10 days,” Homendy said during a Tuesday afternoon news conference. Homendy said the agency usually issues a preliminary report within about 10 days, but a final report may take anywhere from one to two years.

WATCH: Tuesday news conference on boat fire updates

Dive leader, family, students among the victims

One of the people missing after the devastating boat fire was a marine biologist, her brother, Brett Harmeling, told the Los Angeles Times.

Kristy Finstad, 41, was helping to lead a scuba diving expedition aboard the boat, Harmeling told the newspaper.

“No final word on my sister Kristy; however, it is likely she has transitioned to be with the good Lord,” Harmeling wrote in a Facebook post on Tuesday morning.

Pacific Collegiate School, a public charter school in Santa Cruz, said in a letter to parents, students and staff that two students and one student’s parent were on board the boat, KSBW reported.

“While this was not a school-sponsored trip, our hearts and thoughts are with the families of the victims and those yet missing, particularly those of our students and parents on board,” the school said in a statement. Pacific Collegiate serves grades 7 through 12, according to its website.

Susana Rosas, a Stockton resident, posted on Facebook that three of her daughters, their father and their stepmother were on board the Conception when it caught fire, the Associated Press and KPIX reported.

A Kaiser Permanente spokeswoman confirmed to the Modesto Bee that two of the family members were nurses and a third, Evan Solano Quitasol, was a former nurse at their hospitals in Stockton and Manteca.

“On behalf of Kaiser Permanente, we are so saddened by the tragic deaths of our colleagues Fernisa Sison, Michael Quitasol, and Evan Quitasol, along with all those aboard the Conception. Our sympathies are with their family and friends at this time,” Corwin Harper, senior vice president and area manager at Kaiser Permanente Central Valley, said in a statement issued to the media. “We are providing support to those at Kaiser Permanente who are affected by this loss.”

Patricia Beitzinger and Neal Baltz, a couple from Phoenix, Arizona, were also on board the boat, Baltz’s family confirmed to ABC 15.

Santa Barbara mourns the Conception

The horrific incident shook Santa Barbara, especially its waterfront community.

Two memorials were set up near the Santa Barbara Harbor — one at the end of the jetty near a dolphin statue honoring those lost at sea and another near Sea Landing, where the Conception used to dock.

On the jetty, Sigrid Toye, a member of the Santa Barbara Yacht Club took photos of the flowers and candles left at the peaceful spot, where waves crashed against the rocks and docked sailboats swayed with the tide.

Toye said the dive boat fire was a “double whammy” for the area following the wildfires and debris flow that tore through Montecito last year.

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Sigrid Toye pauses Tuesday at a memorial dedicated to those lost at sea, at the end of the jetty in Santa Barbara. It’s been decorated with fresh flowers following Monday’s deadly dive boat fire. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

“This really is a community,” she said. “For the fire and the mudslides, people really stepped up. This is no different.”

Toye said residents are shocked by the boat fire and loss of life, most of all those who spend time on boats and in the harbor.

“They’re like old friends and neighbors, those boats,” she said. “It’s really like a loss in the family.”

The scene at the dockside memorial was more chaotic.

Those who visited left flowers, candles, flags, photos and notes on a fence overlooking rentals and commercial boats. One woman even left a diving book in honor of her lost loved one.

Mourners sat near the fence under the hot sun, crying and touching the flowers and items placed there in tribute. In front of them, swimsuit-clad beachgoers rented personal watercraft. Behind them, a row of television cameras watched their every move.

When they began to walk away, a large mass of cameras and microphones surrounded them, seeking a comment about the person they had lost.

Rosa Sandoval and Christopher Sanchez came from Los Angeles to help set up a wooden cross and light candles honoring “Carlitos,” or Carlos, a family friend. They wrote messages on the cross in black and red permanent marker, including “rest in peace” and “te queremos,” or “we love you” in Spanish.

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Sandoval described Carlos as a good friend who was charismatic and “a lot of fun.” She cried as she remembered him and gazed at the memorial.

On the other end of the dock, Walter Hamilton, an avid diver and area resident, stood at a respectful distance after leaving flowers nearby.

“I just feel part of the diving community,” he said, when asked what drew him to the memorial.

Hamilton said he was previously a member of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office search and rescue dive team. He choked up thinking about how divers recovering Conception passengers must be coping.

Hamilton said he’d gone on diving trips with the Conception numerous times since about 1975. He said in all the time he’d spent on the boat, he’d never considered how to leave the vessel in a hurry.

“I had nothing but the best impression of the owner, the crew and the operators,” Hamilton said.

Tragedy at sea

The dive boat Conception, based out of Santa Barbara, caught fire and sank early Monday morning.

The Conception’s crew put out a distress call about 3:15 a.m. reporting the vessel was engulfed in flames, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

“I can’t breathe!” says a clearly frightened man in a recording of the call produced by the Los Angeles Times.

The boat, which was anchored about 20 yards offshore, eventually sank in about 65 feet of water, according to Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason.

Crews first found four bodies off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, and 16 others were recovered later on Monday, according to the Associated Press.

Five crew members escaped the conflagration and made it to The Grape Escape, a neighboring boat. Bob and Shirley Hansen, the boat’s owners, told The New York Times that two of the crew members went back to the Conception to look for survivors and couldn’t find anyone.

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The Santa Barbara-based Conception dive boat caught fire and sank early Monday near Santa Cruz Island, and 34 people are feared dead. Santa Barbara County Fire Department

“As it was burning, there would be explosions going off every couple of minutes,” Bob Hansen told the Los Angeles Times. “It was probably some of the dive tanks exploding. It made me feel so helpless.”

The Conception is one of three vessels, along with the Truth and the Vision — operated by Truth Aquatics out of Sea Landing at the Santa Barbara Harbor.

Worldwide Diving Adventures — a company based in Twin Bridges, near Lake Tahoe — advertised the three-day trip on its website.

The Conception had a capacity of 46 passengers, and life rafts and jackets for 110 people, according to the company’s website.

The passenger bunking area is on the lower deck, according to a diagram on the website.

The cause of the fire remains unknown.

Authorities have opened a family assistance center as a resource for families and friends of the victims at the Earl Warren Showgrounds. The center will be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Wednesday and 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Thursday. Dates and times may change based on need, according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.

The showgrounds are located at 3400 Calle Real in Santa Barbara. Family members of the victims can call 833-688-5551 for information. The public can call 2-1-1 if they are within the 805 area code, or 800-400-1572 if they are not.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton contributed to this report and can be reached at tbolton@noozhawk.com. Read the Santa Barbara-based news site’s version of the story here.

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