No one found alive after dive boat catches fire; 34 dead

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) — Flames roared through a boat of sleeping scuba divers so quickly that it appears none of the 34 people below deck could escape, authorities said Tuesday as they ended their search without finding anyone who was missing still alive from the Labor Day tragedy off the Southern California coast.

It's not known what started the fire early Monday aboard the Conception, which carried scuba diving enthusiasts on a three-day excursion. It spread rapidly and flames blocked both exits out of the lower deck, where passengers and one crew member were sleeping in tight quarters, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.

The captain and four crew members awake on the upper decks jumped off the front of the vessel, swam to an inflatable boat at the back and steered it to a ship anchored nearby. Authorities have interviewed them but haven't said what efforts they made to help the 34 people trapped aboard before abandoning ship.

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Dozens killed after boat catches fire off California coast
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Dozens killed after boat catches fire off California coast
In this photo provided by the Ventura County Fire Department, VCFD firefighters respond to a boat fire off the coast of southern California, Monday, Sept. 2, 2019. The U.S. Coast Guard said it has launched several boats to help over two dozen people "in distress" off the coast of southern California. (Ventura County Fire Department via AP)
In this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, firefighters work to extinguish a dive boat engulfed in flames after a deadly fire broke out aboard the commercial scuba diving vessel off the Southern California Coast Monday morning, Sept. 2, 2019. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)
In this photo provided by the Ventura County Fire Department, VCFD firefighters respond to a boat fire off the coast of southern California, Monday, Sept. 2, 2019. The U.S. Coast Guard said it has launched several boats to help over two dozen people "in distress" off the coast of southern California. (Ventura County Fire Department via AP)
In this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department a dive boat is engulfed in flames after a deadly fire broke out aboard the commercial scuba diving vessel off the Southern California Coast Monday morning, Sept. 2, 2019. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)
In this photo provided by the Ventura County Fire Department, VCFD firefighters respond to a boat fire off the coast of southern California, Monday, Sept. 2, 2019. The U.S. Coast Guard said it has launched several boats to help over two dozen people "in distress" off the coast of southern California. (Ventura County Fire Department via AP)
A memorial outside Truth Aquatics for the victims of the Conception boat fire, Monday, Sept. 2, 2019. A fire raged through a boat carrying recreational scuba divers anchored near an island off the Southern California coast early Monday, leaving multiple people dead and hope diminishing that any of the more than two dozen people still missing would be found alive. (AP Photo/Stefanie Dazio)
Orlando Aldana, 42, of Santa Barbara, lights candles in honor of the victims at the growing memorial for those caught in the fire on the Conception boat, Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, in Santa Barbara, Calif. A fire raged through the boat carrying recreational scuba divers anchored near an island off the Southern California coast early Monday, leaving multiple people dead and hope diminishing that any of the more than two dozen people still missing would be found alive. (AP Photo/Stefanie Dazio)
JJ Lambert, 38, and his fiancee, Jenna Marsala, 33, hang up a dive flag in remembrance of the victims of the Conception boat fire at a memorial site on Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, in Santa Barbara, Calif. A fire raged through the boat carrying recreational scuba divers anchored near an island off the Southern California coast early Monday, leaving multiple people dead and hope diminishing that any of the more than two dozen people still missing would be found alive. (AP Photo/Stefanie Dazio)
A Ventura County Fire Department truck leaves U.S. Coast Guard Station Channel Islands in Oxnard, Calif., Monday, Sept. 2, 2019. Multiple people are feared dead after a dive boat caught fire before dawn Monday off the Southern California coast. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
An FBI agent arrives at U.S. Coast Guard Station Channel Islands in Oxnard, Calif., Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, as multiple people are feared dead after a dive boat caught fire before dawn Monday off the Southern California coast. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
FBI and Coast Guard personnel work together at U.S. Coast Guard Station Channel Islands in Oxnard, Calif., Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, as multiple people are feared dead after a dive boat caught fire before dawn Monday off the Southern California coast. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
A woman is comforted by a member of the Ventura County Fire department at U.S. Coast Guard Station Channel Islands in Oxnard, Calif., Monday, Sept. 2, 2019. Multiple people are feared dead after a dive boat caught fire before dawn Monday off the Southern California coast, according to the Coast Guard. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester, right, addresses the media at the U.S. Coast Guard Station Channel Islands base in Oxnard, Calif. Monday, Sept. 2, 2019. A dive boat caught fire before dawn Monday off the Southern California coast. Several crew members were rescued and Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll told The Associated Press the Coast Guard was searching for others who may have been able to escape the fire by jumping from the boat. (AP Photo/Stefanie Dazio)
CALIFORNIA shaded relief map, highlighted with SACRAMENTO (capital) and fire locators, partial graphic
Coast Guard crews leave the US Coast Guard Station Channel Islands as they head out to the scene of the boat that burned and sank off the Santa Cruz islands early in the morning at the Coast Guard base in Oxnard, California on September 2, 2019. - A commercial scuba-dive boat sank amid intense flames early off the coast of Southern California and 34 passengers were unaccounted for, the US Coast Guard said. Five Conception crew members were awake and jumped into the water when flames burst out around 3:15 am (1015 GMT), Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester told reporters in a televised briefing. She said 34 people -- not the 33 reported earlier by the Coast Guard -- were unaccounted for when the Conception sank 20 yards (meters) offshore, leaving only its bow exposed. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Coast Guard crews leave the US Coast Guard Station Channel Islands as they head out to the scene of the boat that burned and sank off the Santa Cruz islands early in the morning at the Coast Guard base in Oxnard, California on September 2, 2019. - A commercial scuba-dive boat sank amid intense flames early off the coast of Southern California and 34 passengers were unaccounted for, the US Coast Guard said. Five Conception crew members were awake and jumped into the water when flames burst out around 3:15 am (1015 GMT), Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester told reporters in a televised briefing. She said 34 people -- not the 33 reported earlier by the Coast Guard -- were unaccounted for when the Conception sank 20 yards (meters) offshore, leaving only its bow exposed. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
A Coast Guard crew leaves the US Coast Guard Station Channel Islands as they head out to the scene of the boat that burned and sank off the Santa Cruz islands early in the morning at the Coast Guard base in Oxnard, California on September 2, 2019. - A commercial scuba-dive boat sank amid intense flames early off the coast of Southern California and 34 passengers were unaccounted for, the US Coast Guard said. Five Conception crew members were awake and jumped into the water when flames burst out around 3:15 am (1015 GMT), Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester told reporters in a televised briefing. She said 34 people -- not the 33 reported earlier by the Coast Guard -- were unaccounted for when the Conception sank 20 yards (meters) offshore, leaving only its bow exposed. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
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Twenty bodies have been pulled from the sunken ship that had been anchored close to the shore of Santa Cruz Island, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) off the coast and northwest of Los Angeles. Four to six other bodies have been spotted underwater, and divers are looking for the remaining people who are missing.

Among those believed to be dead are five members of one family and the marine biologist leading the diving tour.

"We're sensitive to the fact that families have gathered today, some from outside of the area, to bring their loved ones home," Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig told reporters. Those families "will rely on us to do everything in our power to find out happened aboard that vessel in the last moments of these family members' lives. That's our commitment."

DNA will be needed to identify all the victims, and authorities will be using the same rapid analysis tool that identified victims of the deadly wildfire that devastated the Northern California town of Paradise last year, the sheriff said.

Authorities have not released any victims' names, but Brown said he had heard anecdotally that they ranged from teenagers to people in their 60s. He said most appear to have been from Northern California, including Santa Cruz, San Jose and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Susana Rosas of Stockton, California, posted on social media that her three daughters, their father and stepmother were on board.

Kristy Finstad, 41, co-owner of Worldwide Diving Adventures, which chartered the boat, was identified in a Facebook post by her brother, Brett Harmeling of Houston who asked people to pray for her.

Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz said some of its students and their parents were on the boat.

The Coast Guard called off its rescue operation after determining there were no more survivors, Capt. Monica Rochester said.

The 75-foot (23-meter) Conception was on the last day of a three-day excursion to the chain of rugged, wind-swept isles that form Channel Islands National Park in the Pacific Ocean west of Los Angeles. The fire broke out shortly after 3 a.m. Monday as the boat sat anchored in Platt's Harbor off Santa Cruz Island.

The sheriff said all 34 victims were trapped on the boat's lower deck when flames quickly blocked both a narrow stairway and an escape hatch leading to the upper decks.

"The one crew member who was not rescued appears to have been asleep in the sleeping area down below with the passengers," Brown said.

It appears the crew sent multiple mayday calls, including one from the Conception in which a crew member could be heard saying he couldn't breathe.

A later one came from the fishing vessel The Grape Escape after the crew reached it in their small boat. One of the vessel's owners said he heard explosions as he watched the Conception go up in flames from about 100 yards away. Brown said the blasts could have been exploding scuba tanks or propane tanks.

Investigators have received written accounts from the five survivors and planned to interview them, Brown said.

The Conception, based in Santa Barbara Harbor, was owned by Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics, founded in 1974. A memorial at the harbor has quickly grown as mourners come to pay their respects.

Actor Rob Lowe tweeted that he had been aboard the vessel many times. Dave Reid, who runs an underwater camera manufacturing business with his wife, Terry Schuller, also has traveled on the Conception and two other boats in Truth Aquatics' fleet and said he considered all three among the best and safest.

Schuller said the company's crews have always been meticulous in going over safety instructions at the beginning of every trip she's been on.

"They tell you where the life jackets are, how to put them on ... the exits, where the fire extinguishers are, on every single trip," Schuller said.

Coast Guard records show the boat's owners quickly addressed all safety violations from the last five years.

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Associated Press writers John Antczak and John Rogers in Los Angeles, Julie Watson of San Diego and Janie Har from San Francisco contributed to this story.

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This story has been corrected to show that a quote from Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig was attributed to Sheriff Bill Brown.

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