Conception fire
May God rest their souls. (Photo via Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

One week ago, I was writing about a C-130 airplane that crash-landed at the Santa Barbara Airport and erupted in flames. Remarkably, all seven people aboard escaped unscathed.

It was a simpler time, wasn’t it?

In an unfathomable turn of events, Noozhawk has been filled this past week with news of the Conception dive boat disaster off Santa Cruz Island on Labor Day morning, when the boat caught fire and sank while anchored just offshore.

Under circumstances that are almost too heartbreaking and horrifying to even contemplate, 34 of 39 people lost their lives during a recreational diving expedition that was just supposed to be fun.

These Best of Bill columns are weekly compilations of our Top 5 most-read stories of the past seven days, as tracked by our Google Analytics. This time, the Top 5 stories that 185,041 of you were reading were all related to the Conception catastrophe, with two more rising rapidly in the Top 10.

For the purpose of this roundup, and your interest and convenience, I’m consolidating them all as No. 1, with some play by play to explain how Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton and his team covered the unfolding tragedy.

I must remind you that this is an opinion column and I am not a reporter. Our professional journalists have — again — done an outstanding job reporting the news stories with accuracy, clarity, distinction and respect. They don’t need me to do their jobs.

1. 4 Deaths Confirmed, 30 Still Missing after Dive Boat Conception Burns, Sinks Off Santa Cruz Island

» 20 Dead, 14 Still Missing After Dive Boat Conception Sinks Off Santa Cruz Island

» U.S. Coast Guard Suspends Search for Survivors in Conception Dive Boat Tragedy

» NTSB: Conception Crew Share ‘Harrowing’ Accounts of Fire That Doomed Vessel

» Surviving Crew Members of Ill-Fated Dive Boat Interviewed by NTSB Investigators

» 33 Bodies Now Recovered from Conception Dive Boat Disaster; 1 Still Missing

» NTSB Begins Investigation Into Conception Dive Boat Disaster

It was the worst-case scenario of worst-case scenarios.

The Santa Barbara-based commercial dive boat, Conception, was lying at anchor off Santa Cruz Island in the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 2, on the last day of a three-day diving trip.

The 75-foot vessel — operated by family-owned Truth Aquatics out of Sea Landing at the harbor and chartered by family-owned Worldwide Diving Adventures out of Santa Cruz — had 33 passengers and six crew members aboard.

Shortly after 3 a.m., a fire broke out on the boat, apparently in the galley directly above the cramped and confined sleeping quarters where the passengers were bunked.

As officials recounted later that day, within minutes, flames were raging out of control. Five of the crew members, who apparently had been asleep in their quarters on the bridge, tried to get to the galley’s doors but were driven back by the inferno.

A Mayday distress call was made at 3:30 a.m., with the caller reporting that the boat was fully engulfed in flames.

“I can’t breathe,” he added.

With the boat deck burning out from under them, the five leaped into the water to escape the raging fire, intense heat and thick smoke. One suffered a severely broken leg in the chaos.

Once in the water, the crew members were able to get to the boat’s skiff and they raced to a nearby cabin cruiser that also was anchored in Platts Harbor, on the north side of the island, 28 miles south of Santa Barbara.

Awakened by the crew’s shouts and pounding on the hull of their vessel, the Grape Escape, Shirley and Bob Hansen emerged on their deck to a fearsome sight.

“The flames were shooting up 25 feet,” Hansen told the Daily Beast. “I felt so helpless. It’s just burning. There were five tanks that were blowing up — or we thought there were — these big pops.”

While the Hansens radioed the U.S. Coast Guard and helped two crew members aboard, three others tried to return to the Conception.

National Transportation Safety Board lead investigator Adam Tucker would later say at an Aug. 5 news conference that one of the three, possibly the captain, actually was able to climb back on the Conception but again was forced to flee.

Just after dawn, and within a few minutes of each other, Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton and North County editor Janene Scully both learned that something was not right, and Tom sprang into action. Unfortunately, it would be a while before he had enough confirmed information to post a quick story.

Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason told him that the Coast Guard had responded with multiple vessels and two helicopters, while the Ventura County Fire Department sent crews across the Santa Barbara Channel in two boats.

They were too late. Everybody was too late.

By 8 a.m., the Conception had been reduced to a burned-out hulk, steaming in the water as it bobbed only about 20 yards from shore. Officials said most of the remaining wreckage had sunk — upside down — to the bottom of the harbor, 65 feet below.

Coast Guard divers were able to recover four bodies, which were wrapped in bright blue tarps and rushed to the Santa Barbara Harbor. Our Peter Hartmann was there to photograph the surreal scene as the victims were carried to gurneys to be taken to the sheriff’s Coroner’s Bureau for autopsies and DNA testing.

Noozhawk reporters Josh Molina and Brooke Holland joined Tom around midmorning, with Brooke poking around the harbor and Josh headed to a news conference at Sheriff’s Department headquarters.

None of the news was good. Sheriff Bill Brown cautioned that the wreckage was unstable for recovery divers and that the badly burned condition of the remains may make identification difficult.

Late that night, he confirmed to Tom that a total of 20 bodies had now been recovered, with a half-dozen more located. In a long day of emotional despair, it was about the only hopeful moment, however fleeting.

At a news briefing the next morning, Sept. 3, Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester announced that the search for survivors was now one only of recovery. Over the previous 24 hours, she said, an air and sea search had methodically combed an area of approximately 160 square miles along and off the island’s north shore.

It was a grim acknowledgement of what just about everyone had feared.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli reported that Brown provided a few more details of the dire conditions aboard the stricken Conception.

The most gut-wrenching? It appeared that everyone in the lower deck — one crew member and all 33 passengers — was trapped by the fire, he said.

“There was a stairwell main entryway to get up and down and an escape hatch, and it would appear that both of those were blocked by fire,” he said.

By the morning of Sept. 4, 33 bodies had been recovered and brought to the mainland, with just one individual still missing.

As the hunt continued, investigators flooded into Santa Barbara, determined to determine what happened that fateful day.

“I am 100 percent confident we will determine the cause of this tragedy,” NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy told a news conference.

She said a preliminary report likely would be released in about 10 days, with the final report completed in 12 to 24 months. Pending those reports, anything else is pure speculation at this point.

In addition to the 16-member NTSB team, investigators from the Coast Guard; the county Sheriff’s and Fire departments; the FBI; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are working the case.

The surviving crew members and Truth Aquatics’ owner have undergone extensive interviews, and company records and sister vessels have been reviewed. The NTSB said alcohol testing results were negative but drug test results take longer and are pending.

Among the most crucial unknowns are fire and safety features, alarms and prevention measures aboard the Conception, and training and precautions for its crew and passengers.

At the Sept. 4 briefing, Homendy said she had met for two hours with the grieving families whose whole world had been shattered by the “heartbreaking” and “horrific” tragedy.

“The biggest thing I wanted to get across is how sorry we are for their loss,” she said. “It’s clear they are devastated.”

And that, my friends, should be the biggest takeaway. Please continue to pray for the victims, and for the families and friends who loved them. May God grant them consolation, peace and strength.


2. BizHawk: New Hotel Proposed on Calle Real in Goleta

5955 Calle Real

That’s more like it. (Cearnal Collective rendering)

The Goleta site that once was home to Santa Barbara Motorsports and, for years before that, the Good Earth Restaurant, may finally be transformed into something other than an abandoned property.

Plans for a three-story, 132-room hotel at 5955 Calle Real went before the Goleta Design Review board on Aug. 27. According to our Josh Molina, it was a favorable reception.

This is the third attempt by the project developer, Peninsula Investments Inc. As I recall, an earlier iteration by a San Francisco architecture firm was a little too hip for our taste.

The entirely new plans were developed by Santa Barbara-based Cearnal Collective.

“This is a very important project to me,” said project architect Jeff Hornbuckle, who lives nearby. “It needs to be done right.”

3. Critical Injuries Reported After Vehicle Crashes Over Side of Gibraltar Road

Wreck off Gibraltar Road

Crunch time. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

They were a day early for the annual Pier to Peak Half-Marathon, but four people encountered a grueling, physically taxing ordeal of their own when their vehicle drove off the side of Gibraltar Road above Santa Barbara on Aug. 31, and tumbled down the mountain.

According to the California Highway Patrol, the crash was reported just after noon near East Camino Cielo. The vehicle ended up on its roof after it plunged 40-50 feet below the roadway.

As our Tom Bolton was first to report, the four victims had to be extricated from the wreckage in a fairly elaborate rescue operation involving personnel from the Santa Barbara County, Santa Barbara and Montecito fire departments, and Los Padres National Forest.

Mike Eliason, a county Fire Department spokesman, said two males suffered major injuries and were ferried by American Medical Response ambulances to landing zones cleared on East Camino Cielo. From there, a Calstar medical helicopter and the county’s Copter 3 flew them to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

The other victims — one with moderate injuries and the other only slightly hurt — were transported to the hospital by another AMR ambulance.

The CHP is investigating the cause of the crash. No identities or medical conditions were released.

Since we’re in the vicinity, the next morning, 32-year-old Chris Gregory of Goleta ran past the scene en route to victory in the 2019 Pier to Peak race.

Now the winner of three-straight P2Ps, it took him 1:34:50 to complete the 13-mile course, which starts at basically sea level at Stearns Wharf and ends near 3,997-foot La Cumbre Peak.

Amy Alzina, the 43-year-old superintendent/principal at Cold Spring School in Montecito, easily outpaced the women’s field with a time of 1:58:10. It was her third victory in eight years.

4. Santa Ynez Valley Crash Victim Airlifted to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital

A rollover wreck on a small ranch east of Los Olivos left a man with major traumatic injuries Sept. 4. The victim was airlifted by a Calstar medical helicopter to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

Santa Barbara County fire Capt. Daniel Bertucelli told our Tom Bolton the the incident was reported about 9 a.m. in the 3200 block of Live Oak Road, north of Roblar Avenue east of Highway 154.

Additional details were hard to come by, and the man’s identity and medical condition were not disclosed.

5. Bill Macfadyen: Fiery Crash Landing at Santa Barbara Airport Could Have Been So Much Worse

C-130 crash

Winging it. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

We have nothing new to report on this crash, yet. With all the bad news of the last week, we’ll take the win for now and check back on it next week.

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Last Year on Noozhawk

What was our most-read story this time last year? Mysterious Magic Castle Club Arrives in Santa Barbara.

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Bill Macfadyen’s Story of the Week

And some people say I have an appetite: Astronomers Watch a Black Hole Swallow a Neutron Star for the First Time.

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Best of Bill’s Instagram

There are highs and there are lows, and that was my Instagram feed this past week.

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Watch It

These are British cows so I doubt they’re superstitious baseball players. But why didn’t they just go around?

YouTube video

(Supine video)

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— Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at, follow him on Twitter: @noozhawk and Instagram: @bill.macfadyen, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at, and follow him on Instagram: @bill.macfadyen. The opinions expressed are his own.