What to Know
- Authorities received a distress call from the burning boat early Monday morning
- The boat was on fire just north of Santa Cruz Island, off the Ventura County coast
- Santa Cruz Island is the largest in the Channel Islands chain off Southern California
NTSB investigators converged Tuesday to Southern California to begin probing the cause of a deadly fire on a commercial dive boat that presumably left 34 people dead during a Labor Day Weekend scuba dive in the waters off the Southern California coast.
The investigators were set to interview the five crew members who survived the fire aboard the Conception that was anchored off Santa Cruz Island on Monday when it became engulfed in flames. They were set to review boat records to try to determine how the fire started, whether the boat was properly equipped with safety gear and whether the crew followed safety protocols.
The news followed hours after authorities had called off their search for survivors and said they were entering another recovery phase. Five crew members were rescued, and the bodies of 20 victims have been recovered so far. Many need to be identified by DNA analysis, and officials are collecting samples from family members, officials said.
"We're sensitive to the fact that families have gathered, some from out of the area, to bring their loved ones home," said Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig who joined the Sheriff and U.S. Coast Guard in sharing word that the search for survivors was suspended on Tuesday morning.
Sheriff Bill Brown said he hopes investigators are able to get into the vessel as early as Tuesday afternoon with the hope of bringing cloture to more families left wondering.
"Our hope is that once we get inside the vessel, hopefully today, that we will find the remaining victims and recover them," he said.
The passengers were below deck when the fire erupted, but the vessel's stairwell and escape hatch were blocked by fire, Brown said.
The fire broke out Monday about 3 a.m. on the 75-foot boat off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, the largest in the Channel Islands chain.
After receiving the garbled mayday call, the U.S. Coast Guard dispatched helicopters, small boats and a patrol cutter in the area for a search-and-rescue operation about 90 miles from Los Angeles.
Five crew members were rescued as divers fanned out in the waters to find other survivors. U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said they were on the deck of the boat and had jumped into the water. Details about the crew members' actions in helping passengers off the boat weren't immediately available.
"The entire boat was engulfed, from the bow to the stern and 30-foot flames," said Bob Hansen, the skipper of the vessel Grape Escape, which assisted with the rescue. "It was just terrible. It was just completely lit up. I mean, there wasn't a place on the boat that wasn't on fire."
Hansen said he rescued five crew members, including the captain, with four of the five survivors dressed only in underwear. He called the Coast Guard while his wife tended to the survivors.
Hansen said one of the survivors had his girlfriend below deck and said that the boat was hosting three birthday parties over the holiday weekend, including one for a 17-year-old girl who was on board with her parents.
Anxious family members, meanwhile, began arriving to the Coast Guard command center Monday morning seeking answers as mourners began leaving flowers at the Santa Barbara Harbor.
Mixed in among the cards and candles was a framed photo inscribed with a note, "Love you, Allie. You know I'll always miss you forever. Love, Rob."