Sheriff Bill Brown speaking a press conference.
Twenty bodies have been recovered and more have been found in the wreckage of the dive boat Conception near Santa Cruz Island, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Tuesday. The U.S. Coast Guard said it has suspended its search and all of the missing people aboard are likely to have perished.  (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

The U.S. Coast Guard announced Tuesday that it has suspended its search for survivors in the Conception dive boat tragedy, indicating the 34 people below deck when the vessel caught fire and sunk are all believed to have died.

The Santa Barbara-based Conception commercial dive boat caught fire and sank early Monday near Santa Cruz Island, and five crew members were the only known survivors.

The vessel was on a three-day scuba diving trip to the island with 39 people aboard, according to authorities.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said 20 bodies were recovered as of late Monday night, and that the 14 people still missing likely had perished.

On Tuesday, he said another four to six bodies were found by dive teams in the wreckage of the boat, and hopefully would be recovered that day. 

Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said it was not an easy decision to suspend search efforts and transition to a recovery effort, but there is no evidence of any people aside from the five crew members entering the water.

Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester speaking a press conference.

Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester announed Tuesday that the search for survivors of the dive boat Conception disaster had been suspened, and operations had shifted to recovery of bodies. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

Helicopters and Coast Guard vessels searched an area of approximately 160 square miles over about 24 hours, she said. 

Brown said the Conception crew quarters were on the third or upper deck, where the bridge is, while the passenger bunks were on are on the lower deck, below the galley and salon.

It appears that everyone in the lower deck area 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. 

The county Coroner’s Bureau will start gathering DNA samples from victims’ family members Tuesday to identify the bodies that have been recovered so far, Brown said. 

A team from the California Department of Justice will assist with its rapid DNA analysis tool that was used to identify victims of the Camp Fire, he added. 

The Coroner’s Bureau has done visual inspections of the bodies but not conducted any autopsies yet, said Brown. The fire was extremely hot, he said, and some of the bodies “exhibit signs of extreme thermal damage.”

Santa Cruz Island search area

The U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies searched for survivors of the Conception dive boat incident in a 160-square-mile area on the mainland side of Santa Cruz Island.  (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

The office is getting assistance from other agencies, including the Los Angeles County medical examiner’s office.

Authorities have not released the list of passengers or names of victims, pending notification of relatives, but Brown said the majority appear to have been from Santa Cruz, San Jose and other Bay Area communities. 

The bodies recovered as of Tuesday morning include 11 females and nine males, Brown said.

Kristy Finstad, owner of Worldwide Diving Adventures, was leading the dive trip on the Conception, according to her brother, Brett Harmeling.

“No final word on my sister Kristy; however, it is likely she has transitioned to be with the good Lord,” he wrote on Facebook Tuesday morning.

During Tuesday’s press conference, Suzanne Grimmesey of the county’s Behavioral Wellness Department reminded families that the Family Assistance Center will be open 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and open again Wednesday and Thursday.

There are a lot of people who will never forget hearing the change from a search and rescue effort to a search and recovery operation, she said.

Grimmesey encouraged people who have been directly impacted by the tragedy to get support for themselves and their loved ones at the center, and to connect with other families sharing the same loss.

The Santa Barbara County Fire Department is investigating the cause and origin of the fire.

Chief Mark Hartwig said families and friends of the victims can rely on them to “do everything in our power to find out what happened on that vessel” in the last moments of their loved ones’ lives.

The Conception’s crew put out a Mayday distress call around 3:30 a.m. Monday, and in the audio recording the caller tells a U.S. Coast Guard dispatcher that there were 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 Conception was anchored about 20 yards offshore in Platts Harbor on the mainland side of the island, and eventually sank in about 65 feet of water.

The wreckage is upside down, and authorities plan to stabilize the boat Tuesday so dive teams can investigate the scene and recover additional remains. 

Authorities have said the five crew members were apparently on an upper deck when the fire broke out, while the passengers were believed to be sleeping in bunks on the lower deck. One crew member was also asleep below with the passengers, according to the Coast Guard. 

The five survivors were picked up by Bob and Shirley Hansen on their nearby pleasure craft, the Grape Escape.

The survivors were interviewed by sheriff’s investigators and will be interviewed by the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board investigators on Tuesday, according to Rochester.

No details from their statements have been released. 

A family assistance center opened at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara, at 3400 Calle Real. Santa Barbara County advises families seeking information to call the help line at 1.833.688.5551, or the 211 Call Center, which can be reached at 800.400.1572 for callers outside the 805 area code.

Unified Command for the response includes the Sheriff’s Office, Santa Barbara County Fire Department, U.S. Coast Guard and National Park Service.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton contributed to this report.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook