Couple: Crew Said Fire Made Passengers' Rescue Impossible

And more on the devastating Labor Day blaze aboard the Conception dive boat
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 3, 2019 3:08 PM CDT
Couple: Crew Said Fire Made Passengers' Rescue Impossible
This image made from video released by TowBoatUS Ventura shows a burning out charter dive boat "Conception," before it sank off Santa Cruz Island, near the coast of Ventura County, Calif., early Monday, Sept. 2, 2019.   (Capt. Paul Amaral/TowBoatUS Ventura via AP)

The couple that rescued the five crew members who escaped the horrifying blaze aboard a California dive boat Monday say that the captain of the Conception was among the five, and he told them the rear escape hatch was engulfed in flames, making it impossible for the crew to get below deck and help the 33 passengers and one additional crew member trapped there. Shirley Hansen, who was in the area with her husband Bob on their boat Grape Escape off the coast of Santa Cruz Island in California's Channel Islands, says one crew member who came aboard was inconsolable as he described the passengers, including a 17-year-old girl who had celebrated her birthday with her parents the night before. "He was crying, because he knew they were still on the boat," she tells CBS News. Adds Bob, "And one of the crewmen, his girlfriend was also on the boat. And she was down there." He says the crew members were going through "horror." More on the tragedy:

  • The death toll: At a press conference Tuesday morning, the Coast Guard announced it had called off the search for survivors, KEYT reports. All 34 people who did not make it off the boat are presumed dead; 20 bodies have been recovered and divers have located between five and seven additional bodies inside the wreckage that are not yet able to be recovered. Dive crews are hoping to be able to do that Tuesday, as well as search for additional victims.
  • "There was no one": Shirley Hansen says two of the crew members got back in the dinghy they had used to escape the burning boat and get to Grape Escape. They went back to see if anyone else on board had made it off the boat and needed to be rescued, but "they came back and there was no one that they found."

  • Recovery difficulties: The boat sank in 62 feet of water and overturned, making the recovery process difficult. KEYT calls the conditions "dangerous" for divers, and authorities say they are working to stabilize the boat.
  • Identification: Authorities are in the process of contacting family members of those aboard the boat and getting DNA samples from them that will be used to identify victims. So far, one family has come forward to identify a victim who is presumed dead: 41-year-old Kristy Finstad, a marine biologist who was helping to lead the weekend excursion for her family's scuba diving company, the Los Angeles Times reports.
  • What happened? The cause of the fire is still under investigation. As the Times notes, boat fires often begin when fuel and an ignition source come together in the engine compartment; electrical sources can also be to blame. Authorities have not said much about what might have happened, other than to stress there is no indication of criminal activity. The Conception featured a fixed carbon dioxide engine room fire suppression system.
  • Pure oxygen: Though there's no indication this was a factor in the blaze, the Times notes it's also likely that pure oxygen was on board the Conception, as an online agenda for the weekend trip says Nitrox (a blend of pure oxygen and air) would be available for divers to use in their tanks. One scuba company owner tells the paper tanks and equipment that use Nitrox are designed to suppress accidental fire, and those using it must receive special training.
  • Tank explosions? One thing seems clear, according to the Hansens: Once the fire started, at least some of the scuba tanks apparently exploded. "As it was burning, there would be explosions going off every couple of minutes. It was probably some of the dive tanks exploding," Bob Hansen tells the Times. The Santa Barbara County sheriff confirmed that while propane bottles or scuba tanks may have exploded due to the flames, "There’s no indication at this point in the investigation that there was an explosion that preceded this fire or this event." CNN reports firefighters had a hard time extinguishing the flames, and a Coast Guard official says that may have been due to the fuel onboard.
  • "Death trap": Some were sharing a photo from Truth Aquatics, owner of the Conception and a number of other dive boats, that shows the bunk area where passengers were likely asleep when the fire broke out around 3:15am. "Stairs up to deck are only way out - no escape with a fire up there. Death trap for all 34," tweeted one commenter alongside the photo.
  • Two ways out: A veteran dive master who has been on more than a dozen trips aboard the Conception clarifies that there was an escape hatch in addition to the curving staircase leading to the galley, and says the bunk area has fire extinguishers and smoke alarms. But a dive photographer who has also been on the Conception posted on Facebook, "There is a spiral staircase that's built really for one person. There's also a small emergency escape hatch on the stern end of the bunk rooms. Finding your way out, though, at 3:30am when there is no electricity but thick smoke and flames is impossible."
  • "Worst-case scenario": The Santa Barbara County sheriff echoed those thoughts in describing the situation as "probably the worst-case scenario you could possibly have," ticking off a list of factors: remote location, fast-spreading fire, "limited, if any, firefighting capabilities," and sleeping passengers. (The crew members who escaped were already awake and above deck when the fire started; the one crew member who did not make it off the boat was still asleep.) At Tuesday's press conference, per KTLA, he confirmed that both the stairwell and the escape hatch appear to have been blocked by flames.
  • A community rocked: The local dive community was reeling from the news, with many wondering whether they knew any of the victims. "We are a tight but small community," one seasoned diver tells the Times. "It's awful." Rob Lowe was among many recalling trips they had taken aboard the Conception or other Truth Aquatics boats. But as the Ventura County Star notes, many of the victims are presumed to have been from the Bay Area, as it was a Bay Area group that had chartered the boat for the trip.
(Five members of a Northern California family may be among the dead.)

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