Coast Guard: 4 bodies found; 29 people missing after Calif. boat fire

Searchers continued to look for more than two dozen other people who were aboard the vessel Conception, which burned while anchored off Santa Cruz Island


By Associated Press

OXNARD, Calif. — The bodies of four people who died when a raging fire swept through a dive-boat off the Southern California coast were recovered Monday as authorities said more than two dozen others remained missing and feared dead.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll says the four bodies had injuries consistent with drowning.

In this photo provided by the Ventura County Fire Department, VCFD firefighters respond to a boat fire off the coast of southern California. (Photo/Ventura County Fire Department via AP)
In this photo provided by the Ventura County Fire Department, VCFD firefighters respond to a boat fire off the coast of southern California. (Photo/Ventura County Fire Department via AP)

Searchers continued to look for more than two dozen other people who were aboard the vessel Conception, which burned while anchored off Santa Cruz Island.

"Right now they're conducting shoreline searches for any available survivors," Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester told reporters at a brief news conference at Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard.

The Coast Guard said the vessel was believed to have carried 38 people, including five crew members who jumped off soon after the fire ignited before dawn.

"The crew was actually already awake and on the bridge and they jumped off," Rochester said.

Two suffered minor injuries, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney.

Authorities said the crew members were rescued by a good Samaritan vessel called The Grape Escape.

Asked if the crew tried to help others aboard, Rochester said, "I don't have any additional information."

A woman who came to the harbor said, "My son was on that boat." She was led away by a Ventura County firefighter.

Rochester said the 75-foot (20-meter) commercial scuba diving vessel was anchored in Platt Harbor, about 20 yards (18 meters) off the northern coast of Santa Cruz Island, when the fire ignited around 3 a.m.

She said the vessel sank in 64 feet of water, adding its bow is still visible above the waterline.

The Conception was on the final day of a Labor Day weekend cruise to the Channel Islands when the fire erupted.

"At 3:15 this morning the Coast Guard overheard a mayday call. The call was garbled, it was not that clear, but we were able to get some information out of it to send vessels on scene," Barney said.

Rochester said that call indicated the boat was already fully ablaze.

The Conception was chartered by Worldwide Diving Adventures, which says on its website that it has been taking divers on such expeditions since the 1970s. It was owned and operated by Truth Aquatics, a Santa Barbara-based company founded in 1974.

Asked if the boat operator has a history of any violations, Rochester said, "The vessel has been in full compliance."

The National Transportation Safety Board said it is sending a team to investigate.

The Conception had departed at 4 a.m. Saturday with plans to return at 5 p.m. Monday.

Divers sleep in a single room of bunk beds, according to a diagram of the Conception posted on Truth Aquatics' website.

The website says the vessel, launched in 1981, has rafts and life jackets for up to 110 passengers and exits on the port, starboard and bow that provide "easy water entry."

The trip promised multiple opportunities to see colorful coral and a variety of marine life around the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California.

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Associated Press Writers John Antczak, John Rogers and Justin Pritchard in Los Angeles and Michael Balsamo in Washington contributed to this story.

Associated Press
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