The dispatcher can be heard asking, "Can you get back on board and unlock the boat?" after the Conception went up in flames with 39 people on board

By Rachel DeSantis
September 03, 2019 09:56 AM

A distressing mayday call made shortly after a diving boat carrying 39 people burst into flames early Monday has raised questions about the circumstances surrounding the blaze, including whether or not the doomed passengers were trapped below deck.

The Conception, a 75-foot commercial diving boat, caught fire around 3:30 a.m. local time on Monday off the coast of Santa Cruz Island in California, while all 33 passengers and one crew member were asleep below deck.

Five crew members, the only ones awake at the time, managed to escape the flames and paddle in a dinghy to a nearby boat, where they were rescued by Shirley Hansen and her husband Bob Hansen, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll said crews had located the bodies of 25 people as of Monday night, NBC News reports.

Audio of a mayday call reveals that the dispatcher made several references to the passengers being “locked” inside the boat, with no means of escape from the flames.

“There’s 33 people on board the vessel, they can’t get off?” he asks, to which he receives no audible response in the audio obtained by journalist Matthew Keys. “Are they locked inside this boat?”

Ringo H W Chiu/AP/Shutterstock

Only the dispatcher can be heard speaking, and it remains unclear as to whether he is repeating what he heard back to the caller, or if he is asking the questions himself. Nothing he says is affirmatively answered by the caller, who told the dispatcher, “I can’t breathe,” earlier in the call.

“Can you get back on board and unlock the boat? Unlock the door so they can get off?” the dispatcher asks.

He then inquires as to whether the passengers have access to equipment to help them quell the flames.

“You don’t have any firefighting gear at all, no fire extinguishers or anything?” he asks.

Christian Monterrosa/AP/Shutterstock

Just before the audio ends, the dispatcher says, “There’s no escape routes for any of the people on board?”

The idea that the boat’s passengers may have been trapped on the boat was echoed by Mr. Hansen, who told NBC News that the crew members he and his wife rescued said below deck exits had been blocked.

Ventura County Fire Department/ Twitter

“The five guys are there in their dinghy, they’re asking me to help them, and their boat is just 400 yards away, fully engulfed,” said Hansen. “They said all of [their passengers] were underneath. They told me then that there was another exit, but that exit was also blocked.”

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It remains unclear just where the exits were located, and whether they were either blocked or locked.

Hansen said several of the crew members were emotionally distraught, with one saying his girlfriend had been on board and did not make it off the boat.

“They felt so helpless. They said that with everything — so much on fire, so much that they just couldn’t get to them,” he said.

Dave Reid and wife Terry Schuller, who have both traveled on the Conception in the past, told local CW affiliate KTLA that the boat’s sleeping area is “tight,” with bunk beds that are stacked next to each other.

Reid told the outlet that in order to get to the top deck, passengers must navigate a narrow stairway with only one exit.

Ventura County Fire Department/ Twitter

A U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman reportedly said Monday that the Conception “has been in full compliance” and “we are working deliberately with the vessel owner-operator who is with us at the time.” Truth Aquatics, which owns the Conception, could not be immediately reached by PEOPLE. Representatives from the company declined to comment to other news outlets.

The diving boat was wrapping up a three-day Labor Day weekend trip when the fire broke out. It was scheduled to return Monday morning.

The Coast Guard and local fire departments responded, but the boat, which had been ravaged by the fire, sank into the water around 7:20 a.m. local time on Monday.

“When we looked out, the [Conception] was totally engulfed in flames, from stem to stern,” Hansen told the New York Times. “I could see the fire coming through holes on the side of the boat. There were these explosions every few beats. You can’t prepare yourself for that. It was horrendous.”

The cause of the fire and additional information about the total number of victims and their identities was not immediately available.

A crew member said that one of the victims was likely a 17-year-old girl traveling with her family, one of three people to celebrate a birthday during the trip, Shirley Hansen told the Los Angeles Times.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it will investigate.

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