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Search Suspended After Bodies Recovered From Dive Boat Fire Off California Coast

Local and federal U.S. government officials said today that the bodies of 20 victims of the fire that caused the dive boat Conception to sink off the California coast have been recovered so far.  The fire has claimed the lives of 34 victims, all passengers on the commercial dive boat that caught fire in the early hours of Monday morning.

During a press briefing this morning, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said that near dark, four to six additional bodies had been sighted in the wreck, but could not be recovered without risk to the divers. No additional survivors have been found.

Today they are working to stabilize the sunken boat so they can continue recovery efforts, and divers are mapping a search area based on currents and other underwater considerations, searching in up to 65 feet/19.8 meters of water.

The call center they’ve set up has fielded over 100 calls from family and friends of the victims, and as of now, only four of the victims’ families have not been contacted by the Sheriff’s department, Brown said.

34 dead in boat fire off California coast
34 dead in boat fire off California coast

The victims will (most or all) need to be identified via DNA testing, and the sheriff’s department will be reaching out to family members to collect samples for comparison. The Los Angeles County Coroner’s office has offered support in the form of cooler and additional personnel to help handle the high volume of bodies recovered.

US Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester, Captain of the Port for Coast Guard Sector Long Beach, said during today’s briefing that search-and-rescue efforts had been suspended during the morning and divers are now solely focusing on recovery.

The Coast Guard has conducted seven missions, involving three helicopters searching over a total of 160 miles/257.5 kilometers, and is now moving into the investigation phase and crafting a salvage plan to recover the boat, she added.

Santa Barbara Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said they’re investigating what may have caused the fire, and trying to determine what other boats can learn from the tragedy.

A Family Assistance Center has been set up for families to get information, resources, and support, according to Suzanne Grimmesey from the local Department of Behavioral Wellness. The center will be open from 9:00 am to 6:30 pm until Thursday with additional hours to be added as needed.

Sheriff Brown said the surviving crew members — including the captain — will be interviewed today. No autopsies have been done on any of the recovered bodies yet, only visual inspection, so no cause of death can yet be determined, but all seem very damaged by the fire which is why the DNA test will be important.

Familial DNA will be used to confirm that the recovered bodies match the manifest. The youngest suspected victim was 17 years old, and the oldest possibly in their 60s.

Coast Guard Captain Rochester said the Conception had a fixed firefighting system in the engine room, as well as portable systems at each entryway, in the bridge, and on the main deck. It appears that both the main stairway and escape hatch were blocked by fire, but it’s unknown whether the passengers were asleep when they perished.

Sheriff Brown said that the Conception’s firefighting systems were last inspected in August, but could not confirm whether that was August of 2018 or 2019. Captain Rochester confirmed that as far they know, the Conception was within regulations at its last inspection.

Additional reporting by Stephan Whelan & John Liang

Erin Durbin-Sherer
Erin Durbin-Sherer
Erin began diving in 2012 as preparation for a trip to Hawaii and before the year was out she'd left her old life behind to work in the dive industry full-time. When she's not out exploring the deep and collecting c-cards, you might find her making art or working on her master's thesis in cultural anthropology at San Diego State University. Erin is an Associate Editor with