California scuba-diving boat fire investigation begins

An investigation has begun into the fatal fire on leisure boat Conception at the weekend, off the southern California island of Santa Cruz.

Federal safety investigators on promised an exhaustive investigation. None of the 34 passengers on board survived, and many of the charred bodies remained trapped in the sunken wreckage. One of the six crew was also reported to have died. The vessel had been on a short scuba-diving trip from the mainland.

National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy said that 16 investigators were already assigned to the probe, including specialists in operations, engineering, survival factors and fire analysis.

The investigators will collect all perishable evidence while on scene for at least a week, she said, but the Conception would remain on the ocean floor, more than 60 feet below the surface, until a site survey had been completed.

After recovering the remains of 20 people from the 23-metre Conception or from the waters where the dive ship sank off Santa Cruz Island, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said that “there were several other victims that were seen by the divers – between four and six – that are still between the wreckage, but due to the position of the boat they were unable to be recovered before nightfall”.

Efforts were to be made on Wednesday to stabilize the boat so that divers could enter it safely, search it and recover additional victims.

The five survivors included the boat’s captain and four crew members. They were above deck when the blaze broke out at about 03:15 local time and escaped in an inflatable boat. A crew member who perished was apparently sleeping below deck with the passengers at the time.

The victims ranged in age from 17 to 60. Emergency workers planned to use DNA analysis to identify the remains of the 20 bodies recovered so far. Most of the victims were from the Santa Cruz and San Jose area, authorities said.

An audio recording of a call made to the US Coast Guard as flames engulfed the boat has emerged. “Mayday, mayday, mayday!” he said.

The dispatcher answered: “That’s a distress, this is the Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles on channel 1-6, what is your position … and number of persons on board? Over”. “Twenty-nine. Twenty-nine POB (people on board),” said the man. “I can’t breathe! … Twenty-nine POB.”

The dispatcher requested the GPS location of the vessel at least two more times, but the caller apparently failed to respond.

Marine biologist Kristy Finstad, 41, was leading the dive trip on the Conception, according to her brother, Brett Harmeling. Finstad co-owned Worldwide Diving Adventures, which had chartered the boat for a three-day excursion to the islands, and was thought to be among the fatalities.