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Dive Boat Owner: 'No Way' Crew Abandoned Passengers

33 bodies have been recovered in California tragedy
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 4, 2019 2:48 PM CDT

(Newser) – Just one person remains missing in California's devastating dive boat fire, KEYT reports. Thirty-three bodies have been recovered in the Conception tragedy; there were 33 passengers and six crew members aboard, and other than the five crew members who made it off the boat, everyone is presumed dead. Rapid DNA testing will be done to identify the victims, but KTLA reports that family and friends have already identified at least 18 of the people who were on board when the boat, which was on a Labor Day weekend scuba diving excursion to the Channel Islands, caught fire and sank off the coast of Santa Cruz Island in the wee hours of Monday morning.

  • The victims: Many were from the Bay Area because a Santa Cruz group had chartered the boat for the trip. They included the marine biologist who was leading the trip; five members of one family; a Northern California father who was on the trip with his daughter, who lived in Ventura; two students from a Santa Cruz charter school and the parents of one of the students (KSBW says the two girls are "two of the youngest victims"); an Arizona couple; two Santa Monica scuba divers; a 25-year-old woman whose mother says she loved diving and "was following her dream"; and a 26-year-old female crew member who had only just been assigned to work on the boat rather than in the office.

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  • The owner: Glen Fritzler owns and operates Truth Aquatics, the fleet that included the Conception, and he tells Spectrum News 1 he had known some of the victims for decades and that the company will shut down for a few weeks out of respect for everyone involved. "Of all of the years I've been in this business, I've never seen or heard of anything like this," he says. "It's a complete tragedy. It's horrible."
  • Cause of death: According to NBC News, a Coast Guard captain says it's still not clear whether victims died of smoke inhalation in their sleep or whether they woke up and tried to get off the boat. Fritzler says he's surprised no one was able to escape the bunk area, and says, "The only thing that I can possibly conceive is that people suffocated quickly. The smoke, well I guess it was billowing."
  • Exits: Fritzler elaborates on the two exits from the passenger area below the deck of the boat, and explains "there were no locked doors anywhere" keeping passengers down below.
  • "No way": Fritzler also says the crew members who escaped tried to access the fire hoses but couldn't because they were already engulfed in flames. "There is no way" crew members abandoned the passengers, he said, noting they were thwarted by flames as they attempted to help and that the captain was the last to leave the boat as he was making his second mayday call and having trouble breathing due to smoke.
  • The investigation: FBI agents converged Tuesday on the Santa Barbara Harbor, where a spontaneous memorial to victims has sprung up, and boarded one of the Conception's sister boats, KEYT reports. The Ventura County Star reports that the NTSB, FBI, and ATF are all assisting with the investigation into what sparked the fire but notes that the probe could be hampered if evidence has drifted out to sea. The Conception is currently on the ocean floor in 60 feet of water.
  • What could change: The Los Angeles Times reports that there's a "growing focus" on the limited escape routes available to passengers; both may have been blocked by flames. Though the Conception and its owner were in compliance with all regulations and had passed safety inspections, the tragedy could have broader implications. "With 30-plus people dying, the investigation could lead to changes in the way vessels are designed or protected depending on the findings," says a former NTSB official.
(Read more Conception dive boat stories.)

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