LOS ANGELES – Rescuers have suspended their search off the coast of Santa Cruz Island for passengers who were trapped aboard the Conception when the diving boat caught fire and sank early Monday. The rescuers said there are no signs of additional survivors.
Jennifer Homendy, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the federal agency started its investigation at 10 a.m. PDT Tuesday. The team of 16 investigators specializes in engineering, operations, survival factors and fire prevention.
“This was a terrible tragedy,” she told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “I cannot imagine what the families are going through.” Homendy said the team would be on site for seven to 10 days and would work closely with the Coast Guard and first responders. “The NTSB is leading this safety investigation,” she said, noting that investigators want to learn the cause and what could be done to prevent similar accidents.
On Tuesday evening, the investigators will hold an organizational meeting to determine what other technical experts are needed, she said. The agency could release a preliminary report within 10 days of the accident, but a final report could take two years, she said.
“We will provide factual information when it becomes available,” she said.
During the investigation, the NTSB will interview survivors, first responders and the companies involved in the diving trip. Investigators will examine crew training, safety records, survival factors and whether the boat had life jackets and other safety gear. Homendy said she is “100% confident” that investigators will determine the cause of the fire.
If investigators uncover safety issues, the agency will issue immediate safety recommendations to protect the public from similar accidents, she said. The agency plans to update the public on Wednesday and Thursday.
Adam Tucker, the lead investigator, said the Conception was not required to have any type of black box recording device.
The remains of 20 people – 11 female and 9 male – have so far been found. Fourteen people are still missing. Officials called off the search at 9:40 a.m. Tuesday after spending roughly a day combing across 160 miles of the Pacific. A flyover of the area showed no additional signs of distress or debris in the water, said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester.
“It is never an easy decision to suspend search efforts,” Rochester said. “We know this is a very difficult time for family and friends of the victims.”
Between four and six victims were seen in the wreckage on Monday, but they were unable to be recovered before nightfall. Crews will try to stabilize the boat so divers can safely enter it and remove the bodies, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.
Five crew members, who had been awake and jumped overboard, survived the devastating fire. A sixth crew member who was asleep in the same area as the passengers is feared to be dead. Thirty-nine people were on board when the fire broke out. Officials expressed little hope of finding anyone else alive.
Officials have launched an investigation “to try to determine why this incident occurred and what we can learn from this tragedy moving forward,” Rochester said.
The names of those who perished in the fire have not been released.
Officials have received more than 100 calls from family or friends who believe their loved ones were on board the Conception. Investigators are comparing the information from the callers with the list of passengers on the boat. Most of the people aboard the ship were from the Santa Cruz and San Jose areas, officials say.
A special team from the California Department of Justice is helping Santa Barbara County officials use a rapid DNA analysis tool that can help identify victims quickly, Brown said.
Officials were to begin mapping DNA profiles for the 20 victims on Tuesday so they can be compared with family samples. The family samples will be collected using a cheek swab, he said.
It was still dark early Tuesday as several fishermen carted equipment to the dock at the Santa Barbara Harbor, where the Conception had departed days earlier on a $665, three-day dive excursion. The men glanced at a row of glowing candles, each lighted for a victim of one of California’s deadliest sea tragedies.
Mourners hung several dozen white, yellow and red flowers on a metal fence on the approach to the Sea Landing Dock. A message written on a pair of blue fins read, “We love you Conception.”
A young woman, who would give only her first name – Olivia – visited the makeshift memorial at the harbor Tuesday morning. She said her 26-year-old older sister, whom she declined to name, was the sixth crew member aboard the Conception.
Her family called around frantically on Monday, she said, only to learn the worst late in the day: Her sister was below deck when the fire broke out and didn’t survive, she said.
“It makes no sense,” she said, her voice breaking. “It’s not fair – not fair at all.”
Two students from Pacific Collegiate School, a public charter school in Santa Cruz, are among the missing, according to parents of students at the school.
“Our hearts and prayers are with the families of the victims and those that are missing, particularly those of our students. Right now, our priority as a school is to support our students, staff and families,” the school wrote in a statement.
Head of School Maria Reitano could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.
Local, state and federal investigators are trying to determine exactly what went wrong on the Conception, a 75-foot vessel once described by California Diving News as “California’s crown jewel of live-aboard dive boats.”
Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said he knows the families of the victims are awaiting information about their loved ones. He said officials would do “everything in our power to find out what happened aboard that vessel in the last moments of these family members’ lives.”
“As this community continues to deal with the unfolding tragedy ... the county fire district is committed to – on behalf of the county of Santa Barbara – expending all necessary means to find out the cause of origin of this fire.”
Victims who had signed up for the dive trip were in their bunks below deck when the fire started. The boat was about 20 yards off the north shore of Santa Cruz Island, part of the Channel Islands off the Ventura County coast. It was set to return to Santa Barbara Harbor on Monday evening.
“Most everybody was asleep,” said Brown, noting the combination of remote location, rapidly spreading fire and the victims’ vulnerable position on the boat. “You couldn’t ask for a worse situation.”
There was a fire-suppression system in the vessel’s engine room, as required by the Coast Guard, and fire extinguishers near the exits. The equipment was all present during the boat’s last inspection, Rochester said.
Officials say there is no indication that any of the people sleeping in the cabins were able to make it out of the fire onto a higher deck. All appear to have been trapped, Brown said.
“There was a stairwell to get down the main entry way up and down and there was an escape hatch and it would appear as though both of those were blocked by fire,” he said.