The salvage barge Salta Verde has arrived at the waters near Santa Cruz Island where the dive boat Conception caught fire and sunk on Monday.
The salvage barge Salta Verde has arrived at the waters near Santa Cruz Island where the dive boat Conception caught fire and sunk on Monday, killing 34 people. NTSB investigators on Monday shared for the first time the accounts of surviving crew members, who described a ‘harrowing’ scene. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Crew members have shared “harrowing” accounts of the fierce fire that led to the sinking of the dive boat Conception and the deaths of 34 people on Monday, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Jennifer Homendy, a board member for the federal agency, on Thursday offered the first public details about what happened in the early morning hours on Labor Day as the Conception was anchored near Santa Cruz Island, towards the end of a three-day excursion.

“One crew member reported that he awoke to a noise, and left his bunk, and went out of the wheelhouse deck, and saw flames erupting from the galley area,” Homendy told reporters at an afternoon press conference.

“He tried to get down the ladder, but flames had engulfed the ladder, and so the crew that was on the bridge had jumped down to the main deck, and one had broken their leg in that effort,” Homendy added.

“The crew that did jump down reported that they went to the double doors of the galley to try to get in to get to the passengers, but it was engulfed in flames at that time. They then tried to go to the front part of the vessel to get into the window portion of the vessel, and they could not get into the windows.”

At that point, Homendy said, the crew had to leap from the boat into the water to escape the flames, heat and smoke.

Two of the crew members swam to the back of the boat and got into a skiff that was located there, she said. They then picked up two other crew members and took them to a boat that was anchored nearby, the Grape Escape, and tried to call 9-1-1.

The two then returned in the skiff to the Conception to try and rescue the passengers, but were unable to do so, Homendy said.

In the meantime, a fifth crew member — possibly the captain — reboarded the vessel, according to NTSB lead investigator Adam Tucker, but eventually was forced to flee.

None of the crew members interviewed recalled hearing any smoke detector alarms going off during the fire, Homendy said.

Tucker added that there was no requirement for the Conception to have a smoke-detector system that was wired into the ship’s bridge.

Flowers and other memorials line the walkway to Sea Landing.

Flowers and other memorials line the walkway to Sea Landing, where the ill-fated Conception dive boat was docked. In the background is the Conception’s sister ship, which is similar in designed, and has been looked at by NTSB and other investigators. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

The NTSB officials were asked if any of the crew members saw any passengers on the middle, galley level of the boat trying to escape.

“We’re still interviewing crew members,” Tucker said, “but thus far, no.”

Authorities have recovered the bodies of 33 people who died in the fire and sinking, and were continuing to search for the last victim.

Lt. Erik Raney of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department said that had not been found as of Thursday afternoon.

Crews are using a wide range of equipment in the search, including remote-operated vessels and side-scan sonar.

NTSB investigators started interviewing the crew members on Wednesday, and Homendy characterized the conversations as cooperative and detailed.

Officials from multiple agencies also are formulating plans to raise the submerged wreckage and bring it to shore for further investigation.

Salvage efforts began Thursday afternoon, with the positioning of the crane barge Salta Verde, according to a press release issued by the incident joint command.

Truth Aquatics, the owner of the Conception, has contracted with Global Diving and Salvage to conduct the salvage operation, and the U.S. Coast Guard will oversee the implementation of the salvage plan, according to the release.

From the NTSB’s perspective, it is imperative that the wreckage be kept intact, Homendy said, adding that divers were assessing what will be needed to bring the boat, which is upside down, to the surface and back to shore.

The wreckage will be transported on a barge, and will be taken to “a secure location,” Harmendy said, adding that a specific location had not been decided.

The NTSB and other investigators have examined the Vision, another vessel owned by Truth Aquatics, which is similar in design to the Conception.

Any environmental issues will be addressed in coordination with the National Park Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, and the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response.

Officials are concerned about the weather forecast in the coming days, which called for increased winds that could affect the timing of any effort to recover the boat.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.