Dozens dead in California boat fire

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

File:MV Conception burning (cropped).jpg
The Conception fire at night (Image: SBSO)

A deadly boat fire earlier this week near Santa Cruz Island off the coast of California, United States, resulted in the death of all 33 passengers. The boat, Conception, which caught fire overnight in open seas, carried 33 passengers and six crew members. Five people, who were all crew, were rescued while the rest are presumed dead.

Helicopter footage of response to the boat fire on Monday (Image: USCG)

The Conception was a 75 ft (~23 m) long commercial boat on a three-day voyage for underwater diving with Monday being the Labor Day holiday. The fire started some time after 3 a.m. local time {1000 UTC) Monday. "This is probably the worst-case scenario you can possibly have," said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown. "You have a vessel that's on the open sea, that is in the middle of the night. I mean, it's 3:30 in the morning." As of late Tuesday, 20 bodies had been recovered, eleven women and nine men, according to Brown.

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) called off its search late on Tuesday. USCG Captain Monica Rochester told the press a nearly 24-hour search mission involving three helicopters covering 160 square miles (~415 km2) had discovered no further signs in the water. "It is never an easy decision to suspend search efforts," she said. "We know that this is a very difficult time for families and friends of the victims."

Authorities have not named a cause for the fire, though it was intimated there were no signs of an explosion and the Conception was known to have the requisite fire suppression equipment. CNN, however, reported on a distress call from someone on the Conception, who may or may not have been the captain. The excerpts, which are only the dispatcher's words were reported by CNN as such:

And there's 33 people on board the vessel that's on fire, they can't get off? [...] Roger, are they locked inside the boat? [...] Roger, can you get back on board and unlock the boat, unlock the door so they can get off? [...] Roger, you don't have any firefighting gear at all? No fire extinguishers or anything?" [...] Was that all the crew that jumped off? [...] Roger, is the vessel fully engulfed right now [...] Roger, and there's no escape hatch for any of the people on board?

– USCG dispatcher, CNN

Commenting on the radio communications, Captain Rochester said the situation had "a lot of adrenaline, a lot of confusion. [...] [The dispatcher] was trying to ask for information." However, she added, "there are no locked doors in accommodation spaces" where the passengers would have been.

The Conception was owned by Truth Aquatics and chartered by Worldwide Diving Adventures. Both companies have been in operation since the 1970s according to USA Today.