OXNARD, California: The frantic knocking came well before dawn and jolted Bob and Shirley Hansen awake on their 18 metre fishing boat, The Grape Escape, moored for the night off the coast of Southern California.
Five men soaking wet and shivering in their underwear told the Hansens of a catastrophic fire that had ravaged their 22 metre commercial scuba diving vessel, the Conception, several metres away.
The men, all crew members, had escaped one of California’s worst maritime disasters in decades, a fire that authorities said on Monday appeared to have claimed dozens of lives.
A total of 39 people were on board the Conception, and as of late Monday, there were 25 confirmed deaths, The Associated Press said, citing Coast Guard reports.
The desperation became clear to Bob Hansen when he stepped outside his cabin and saw the glow of the raging fire in the dark. In an interview, he said that he had seen the Conception completely engulfed in flames, “from stem to stern.”
“I could see the fire coming through holes on the side of the boat,” he said. “There were these explosions every few beats. You can’t prepare yourself for that. It was horrendous.”
In a haunting distress call apparently made from the Conception and recorded by a Ventura County marine radio channel, a man yells, “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” Through the distortion and crackle of the radio call, the man’s fear is apparent. “I can’t breathe!” he screams.
Rescue crews scoured the waters south of Santa Barbara and west of Los Angeles throughout the day Monday, hoping that they might find survivors from the Conception, which had been on a three-day holiday excursion to the Channel Islands, part of a national park encompassing rugged, pristine coves in the Pacific.
The remains of four victims were recovered by rescue teams on Monday, according to Sheriff Bill Brown of Santa Barbara County, and an additional four had been located “on the ocean floor in close proximity to the vessel,” he said. There were six crew members aboard and 33 passengers.
As of Monday afternoon, Coast Guard boats were still conducting search and rescue operations.
A Coast Guard spokeswoman, Captain Monica Rochester, said during a news conference late on Monday that the search would continue through the night. But she said the crew members were the only known survivors from the Conception. “It’s a very tragic event, and we will search all the way through the night, into the morning,” she said. “But I think we should all be prepared to move into the worst outcome.”
Passengers on the Conception slept in a single room below deck that was tightly packed with bunk beds, according to a floor plan of the boat on the website of Truth Aquatics, the Santa Barbara-based company that operated the vessel. Narrow staircases from the sleeping quarters and showers led to the galley.
It remains unclear what started the fire. But Brown said that “you couldn’t have asked for a worse situation.”
“You have a vessel in the open sea that is in the middle of the night,” he said. “The sleeping compartment was on the bottom deck of the ship. They would have been sound asleep when this fire started.”
It was too early Monday to say whether negligence had played any role in the fire. “The vessel has been in full compliance,” Rochester said at a news conference. The boat was equipped with a fire suppression system in the engine room. The vessel also had an on-board, built-in barbecue, according to the website.
‘Fire was too big’
After picking up the mayday call at about 3.15am, the Coast Guard dispatched two helicopter crews and several boats to the scene, where they were met by other law enforcement agencies.
At the time of the fire, the Conception was moored in Platts Harbor, north of Santa Cruz Island. At sunrise it was smouldering but still afloat, according to a photograph posted by the Santa Barbara Fire Department. It sank later that morning.
The Hansens’ account testified to the panic in the initial moments after the fire struck.
The crew members who escaped the fire had reached the couple’s boat on an inflatable tender boat.
The Hansens gave clothes to the crew members and helped dry them off. One appeared to have broken his leg, evidently during the escape, and was in tremendous pain. Two other members of the crew went back out toward the Conception to look for passengers who may have made it off the boat; they found no one.
“The fire was too big; there was absolutely nothing we could do,” Bob Hansen said. “You never anticipate something like this. We just felt so helpless.”
Recreational divers in California said Truth Aquatics had a good reputation and appeared careful about safety.
Bill Zhang, owner of Ocean One scuba, which has offered scuba trips on the Conception for the last three years, estimated that there were 15 to 20 diving boats in Southern California and said that the three owned by Truth Aquatics were the largest in the Los Angeles area.
“They are the biggest company in California — they should pass everything very easily,” Zhang, 35, said. He noted that there would have been two captains on board the Conception because it was on an overnight trip.
Commercial boats of the Conception’s size must pass Coast Guard inspection annually to renew their licenses.
Gary Pilecki, a Bay Area-based member of a club that has chartered annual lobster-fishing trips on Truth Aquatics boats since 1982, said that the company’s vessels were always clean and well maintained.
“They’re always doing something to it,” Pilecki, 65, said. “Every time I go by Santa Barbara, I stop and say hello to them, and they’re working on the boat. They’re replacing pipes and repairing things.
“It’s beyond me,” Pilecki said of the fire. “I’m surprised to hear about this.”