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34 People Presumed Dead After Boat Catches Fire, Sinks Near Santa Cruz Island; 20 Bodies Recovered

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Authorities on Tuesday announced they have suspended the search for survivors after a boat packed with scuba divers caught fire and sank near Santa Cruz Island on Labor Day, presuming all 33 passengers and one crew member dead.

A pair of diving fins and flowers at a memorial wall were placed near the Truth Aquatics moorings in Santa Barbara on Sept. 2, 2019. (Credit: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

A pair of diving fins and flowers at a memorial wall were placed near the Truth Aquatics moorings in Santa Barbara on Sept. 2, 2019. (Credit: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

Twenty bodies -- 11 females and nine males -- have been recovered since Monday, and divers spotted an additional four to six in the wreckage, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.

Crews were unable to immediately retrieve the other five because of unsafe conditions beneath the boat, which sank about 20 yards off the island and in over 60 feet of water.

The 75-foot commercial diving vessel was anchored in Platts Harbor on the island’s north side when flames erupted about 3:15 a.m. Monday, hours before it was scheduled to return to Santa Barbara from a weekend Labor Day cruise, authorities said.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Coast Guard announced it had suspended search and rescue efforts, focusing instead on recovering the bodies of the 34 people believed to have died in the incident.

Officials decided to suspend search efforts because they saw no other individuals entering the water, and there were no additional signs of distress or debris when an aircraft flew over the area Tuesday morning, according to Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester.

A photo with a message that reads "I love you Allie" sits on a makeshift memorial in Santa Barbara a day after dive boat burned near Santa Cruz Island on Sept. 2, 2019. (Credit: KTLA)

A photo with a message that reads "I love you Allie" sits on a makeshift memorial in Santa Barbara a day after dive boat burned near Santa Cruz Island on Sept. 2, 2019. (Credit: KTLA)

The search went on for approximately 23 hours and spanned 160 square miles.

"It is never an easy decision to suspend search efforts. We know that this is a very difficult time for families and friends of the victims," she said.

None of the victims have been formally identified, Brown said, noting DNA analysis would be used to make positive identifications. The process will involve collecting DNA samples from family members.

Although authorities have not released the names of any of the deceased, relatives, an employer and a school have identified some of the people on board. The victims included five members of the same family, two students, a diving company owner, a hospital nurse and a 26-year-old woman who was part of the Conception crew.

Many were from the Bay Area, according to Brown.

Of the 39 people aboard, only five people -- all crew members, including the captain -- were able to escape and survived, officials said.

The blaze quickly spread on the watercraft, trapping dozens of passengers and one crew member who were asleep below deck, according to Rochester.

It appears the victims were trapped after the fire erupted, as the stairwell and escape hatch may have been blocked by the flames, according to Brown.

Crews respond to a boat fire near Santa Cruz Island on Sept. 2, 2019. (Credit: Ventura County Fire Department)

Crews respond to a boat fire near Santa Cruz Island on Sept. 2, 2019. (Credit: Ventura County Fire Department)

Five of the crew members were already awake in the main cabin above the deck and jumped off the boat and into a dinghy to escape the blaze.

But before evacuating, one of the men placed a frantic mayday call to authorities, alerting them to the dire situation.

"The call was garbled, it was not that clear, but we were able to get some information out of it to send vessels," said Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney.

By the time the Coast Guard and various county emergency crews arrived at the scene, the Conception was fully engulfed in flames. Personnel from the Santa Barbara and Ventura County fire departments were still fighting the fire around 7:20 a.m. when it sank.

The five crew members, meanwhile, got help from a good Samaritan couple – Bob and Shirley Hansen -- on a pleasure craft that was anchored in a cove.

The crew members were distraught and soaked when they boarded the boat, tearfully recounting how, just hours before, they’d celebrated the birthday of three passengers, including a 17-year-old girl, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Two of the crew members went back try and locate any survivors, but found no one, she said, according to the newspaper.

The couple also radioed a mayday call, then took the crew back to shore where two of the men were treated, one for a broken leg, the other for an ankle injury.

A crew member rescued from a dive boat that burned off Santa Cruz Island is brought back to the U.S. Coast Guard headquarters at Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard on Sept. 2, 2019. (Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

A crew member rescued from a dive boat that burned off Santa Cruz Island is brought back to the U.S. Coast Guard headquarters at Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard on Sept. 2, 2019. (Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

The crew have provided written statements about the incident to authorities, and Brown anticipated they will be interviewed sometime Tuesday as authorities investigate the cause.

The Hansens reported hearing explosions after the fire, but the sheriff said those were likely from propane bottles or scuba tanks that may have been blown up as a result of the flames.

“There’s no indication at this point in the investigation that there was an explosion that preceded this fire or this event," Brown said.

He stressed Monday there was no indication that criminal activity was involved.

Authorities are also trying to determine what caused the fatal fire, though Bill Brown said there was no indication of criminal activity.

The Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating.

The Conception, which first launched in 1981 and is based out of Santa Barbara Harbor, had no recent safety violations. And the violations it did have in the past five years were quickly addressed by the boat’s owners, according to the Coast Guard.

Rochester noted the boat is inspected annually.

The Conception could carry up to 46 people and had a large upper deck area, a built-in barbecue grill, bunkbeds, bathrooms and showers, according to the website of Truth Aquatics, the well-known Santa Barbara scuba diving operation that operated the vessel.

It was also equipped with a number of safety devices, including a fixed carbon dioxide engine room fire suppression system, an emergency radio beacon, and rafts and jackets for up to 110 passengers.

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