At least 20 people are dead — and 14 others likely perished — after the commercial dive boat Conception caught fire and sank off Santa Cruz Island early Monday.
Late Monday, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told Noozhawk that 16 additional bodies had been recovered, in additiona to four that were brought to shore earlier in the day.
Others are believed to be still be in and around the wreckage of the vessel, on the island’s north side about 28 miles south of Santa Barbara, with divers continuing to search for them.
“We have dive teams that are in the water as we speak that are working to attempt the recovery of their remains, but the boat remains unstable, and I am not sure when we are going to be able to recover those bodies, as well as any more that may be in the vessel,” Brown had said earlier in the day at a news conference at Sheriff’s Department headquarters.
Fourteen of the 39 people on the boat were still listed as missing as of late Monday.
The 75-foot Conception, which is owned by Truth Aquatics and based at Sea Landing at the Santa Barbara Harbor, caught fire and sank about 20 yards from the shore, in the Platts Harbor anchorage.
The only known survivors are five crew members who apparently were on an upper deck and were able to leap into the water to escape the flames.
Most of the dead or missing are believed to have been asleep in bunks on a lower deck, underneath the galley and top deck.
Officials said by the time the crew put out a Mayday distress call at about 3:30 a.m., flames already had engulfed the boat.
The U.S. Coast Guard and other responders continued searching into the night for those still missing, but officials held out little hope that they would find more survivors.
“We’re prepared to search through the night and into the morning, but I think we all should be prepared to move into the worst outcome,” Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said at the news briefing.
Ventura County firefighters who had raced out to the island on two boats were still battling the flames when the Conception began to sink at about 7:20 a.m.
Rochester said the wreckage of the Conception ended up upside-down on the ocean floor in about 60 feet of water.
The passengers on board were taking part in a three-day diving excursion organized by Worldwide Diving Adventures, a Northern California-based company.
The boat left Santa Barbara at 4 a.m. Saturday, and was set to return at about 5 p.m. Monday, according to the company’s website.
Four bodies were brought to shore at the Santa Barbara Harbor about 12:30 p.m. Monday and then transported to the county Coroner’s Bureau.
Brown said those victims were two adult males and two adult females, but no additional details were provided.
He added that DNA testing would be required to identify the remains, and that would “take some time.”
The Sheriff’s Department is receiving assistance in identifying the bodies from the coroner’s offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento counties.
“Our hearts go out to the families of the victims of this terrible tragedy,” Brown said. “We will be working diligently to try to get them as much information as possible, as soon as possible.”
He said the department has established a family assistance center at Earl Warren Showgrounds.
The surviving crew members have been interviewed by sheriff’s and Coast Guard investigators, but details of what they said have not been disclosed.
The names and hometowns of those on board the Conception have not been released, but Brown said they likely are from throughout Southern California, and perhaps farther away.
A static-filled audio recording of the Mayday transmission from the Conception offers a glimpse of the terror on the boat after the fire erupted. The audio includes the caller saying, “I can’t breathe.”
Under questioning from the Coast Guard dispatcher, the man gives the vessel’s position on the north side of Santa Cruz Island, and says there are 33 people trapped on board the boat, which was engulfed in flames.
“There’s no escape hatch for any of the people on board,” the man tells the Coast Guard.
The cause of the fire remained under investigation by local, state and federal authorities, but in response to a reporter’s question, Brown said there was no initial report of an explosion, as some have speculated.
“This isn’t a day that we wanted to wake up to, Labor Day, and it’s a very tragic event,” Rochester said. “We will search all the way into the night and into the morning.”
Officials expect to have another update on the tragedy at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
— Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.