A 75-foot dive boat caught fire in the early morning hours of Monday, Sept. 2, with 39 crew members and passengers aboard. Five crew members were able to escape to a nearby civilian boat, Grape Escape, where they made distress calls. As of Tuesday evening, Sept. 3, no one below deck of the boat, named Conception, had been located alive.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown confirmed the remains of 20 of those passengers had been located, with 14 still missing, with all presumed dead. By Thursday morning, Sept. 5, various news outlets reported 33 of the 34 victims' remains had been recovered.
The tragedy struck as the vessel was anchored off the northern coast of Santa Cruz Island, the largest island in Channel Islands National Park, located less than 50 miles off the Malibu coast, and a popular area for diving, whale watching and hiking.
According to early reports from the Ventura County Fire Department, the United States Coast Guard first received a distress call at about 3:15 a.m. on Monday, at which time, “crews from the Coast Guard, Santa Barbara Fire Department, Ventura County Fire Department and Vessel Assist responded.
“The fire department crews were fighting the fire when the vessel sank 20 yards off shore in 64 feet of water,” the press release stated. Conception sunk at about 7:20 a.m. Monday.
Of the 34 people who remained missing or were confirmed dead in the tragedy, one was a crew member and the other 33 were passengers. Those who made it out alive “were all awake at the time” the fire began, according to Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester, speaking at a press conference Monday morning. “[In] the report I received, [passengers] were below decks asleep,” the captain added.
By midday Monday, a massive search and rescue effort had been launched, involving rescuers from Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles counties, in addition to the U.S. Coast Guard.
That effort resulted in the retrieval of the remains of four victims Monday morning; another four had been located on the ocean floor but had not yet been recovered by the afternoon on Monday.
The rescue mission continued into Tuesday morning, when the effort was finally suspended, after the remains of 20 victims were recovered, with another 14 still missing.
Officials on Tuesday stated DNA analysis would be used to identify the remains that had been recovered, as many had been severely damaged by fire.
It was not immediately clear whether any victims on board the boat were local to the Malibu area, though news reports indicated many of the victims—who, preliminary reports stated, ranged in age from 17 to 60—were from the Bay Area. They reportedly included a family of five, a UC Santa Cruz student and Santa Monica residents.
Santa Monica-based nonprofit Heal the Bay announced it would be hosting a “vigil and fundraiser” on Thursday, Sept. 5, “for the family, friends, and close knit community of divers affected by the accident” at Heal the Bay Aquarium under the Santa Monica Pier from 6-10 p.m. with the vigil to be held at 8 p.m.
The National Transportation Safety Board announced on social media it would be “sending a go-team” to begin an investigation into the fire as of 10 a.m. on Monday.
According to the NTSB website, “the purpose of the Safety Board Go Team is simple and effective: Begin the investigation of a major accident at the accident scene, as quickly as possible, assembling the broad spectrum of technical expertise that is needed to solve complex transportation safety problems.”
NTSB Board Member Jennifer Homendy spoke at a press conference on Tuesday, announcing its investigation had begun.
“Our investigation has already begun; we’ve already begun having discussions, like I said, with our fantastic partners, the US Coast Guard, and others,” Homendy said Tuesday, adding, “as I said, the investigation actually began before we even arrived on scene, since we tried not to arrive while rescuers’ recovery was ongoing.”
According to Homendy, surviving crew members, first responders and others would be interviewed by the NTSB as part of the investigation.