Coast Guard Calls Off Its Search for Victims of a Deadly Labor Day Boat Fire

A mayday call reveals frightening details about a disaster that’s claimed the lives of at least 20 people

A three-night Labor Day weekend diving excursion to the northern Channel Islands ended in tragedy when the boat caught fire early Monday morning off the coast of Santa Cruz Island as most of its passengers slept below deck.

A total of 39 people—6 crew members and 33 passengers—were aboard the Conception when the fire started at around 3:15 a.m. Five of the crew members, who were apparently awake and able to jump overboard, survived the disaster. Tuesday morning, after the remains of 20 people were recovered from the boat’s wreckage, the Coast Guard called off its search for survivors. Fourteen passengers are still unaccounted for.

“It is never an easy decision to suspend search efforts,” Coast Guard captain Monica Rochester said. “We know that this is a very difficult time for families and friends of the victims.”

The vessel, which was owned by a company called Truth Aquatics, had been chartered by Worldwide Diving Adventures for the Labor Day trip, according to the latter’s website. According to CNN, the ship’s captain sent out a mayday call to the Coast Guard, but only the dispatcher’s voice can be heard in a recording. During the course of the call he asks whether the captain can get back on the boat to help the trapped passengers and why firefighting gear either wasn’t present or hadn’t been utilized: “And there’s 33 people on board the vessel that’s on fire, they can’t get off? … Roger, are they locked inside the boat? … Roger, can you get back on board and unlock the boat, unlock the door so they can get off? … Roger, you don’t have any firefighting gear at all? No fire extinguishers or anything?”

By the time Ventura County firefighters reached the boat, which was about 20 miles offshore, it was completely engulfed in flames.

On Monday, California senator Dianne Feinstein expressed dismay that so many lives could be lost when regulations are in place to prevent such a disaster.

In a press release calling for an investigation, she wrote, “We need to know whether all applicable safety regulations were being followed and whether additional regulations need to be applied, particularly regulations concerning boats that accommodate overnight passengers. We must know what fire-suppression systems and other emergency equipment are in place on these boats and whether they were in working order on the Conception. And we need to understand exactly how the crew was trained and, if they were awake and above-deck, why they were unable to alert or help rescue passengers.”

As of this morning, a makeshift memorial had sprung up near Truth Aquatics’ moorings in Santa Barbara.

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