None of a dive boat’s 34 passengers survived a fast-moving fire that sunk it off California’s Santa Cruz Island, officials said on Tuesday, as recovery workers prepared to try to retrieve 14 bodies still believed to be on the vessel or in the ocean.
Emergency workers planned to use DNA analysis to identify the badly-burned remains of the 20 people so far removed from the 75-foot (23 m) Conception ship, which was lying upside down under more than 60 feet (18 meters) of water following the early Monday morning blaze.
“There were several other victims that were seen by the divers – between four and six – that are still between the wreckage, but due to the position of the boat they were unable to be recovered before nightfall,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told a news conference. “Today, efforts will be made to stabilize the boat so that divers can safely enter it, search it and recover additional victims.”
Five of the six-person crew who were above deck on the bridge managed to escape in an inflatable boat. The single crew member who did not survive appeared to have been sleeping below deck with the passengers when the fire broke out.
Officials said DNA was needed for positive identification because the 11 female and 9 male victims were so badly burned. Victims range in age from 17 to 60 and most are from the Santa Cruz and San Jose area, authorities said.
The search for survivors involved three helicopter crews and covered 160 miles (258 km), said U.S. Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester. An investigation is underway “to try to find out why this tragedy happened,” Rochester said.
As the flames engulfed the boat, a man placed a desperate call to the Coast Guard, gasping for help in the smoky fire.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday!” he said in a recording of the call.
“That’s a distress, this is the Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles on channel 1-6, what is your position … and number of persons on board? Over,” the dispatcher answered.
“Twenty-nine. Twenty-nine POB,” said the man in the somewhat inaudible call. “I can’t breathe!… Twenty-nine POB.”
The dispatcher requested the GPS location of the vessel at least two more times but the caller apparently fails to respond.
Kristy Finstad, 41, was leading the dive trip on the Conception, according to a Facebook post shared on Monday by her brother, Brett Harmeling. Finstad, a scuba diving instructor and marine biologist, was one of the owners of Worldwide Diving Adventures, the firm that chartered the boat for a three-day excursion to the Channel Islands.
Authorities said the explosions reported by witnesses likely were scuba or propane tanks that burst in the heat of the fire, rather than the cause of the fire itself.
The federal National Transportation Safety Board said it had sent a team of engineers and fire specialists to investigate the blaze.
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