20 bodies, 11 female and nine male, have so far been recovered following the Monday morning fire

By Rachel DeSantis
September 03, 2019 03:33 PM

Search and rescue efforts in the wake of the devastating California boat fire have been suspended as diving teams now turn their focus to recovery missions.

U.S. Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester said at a press conference Tuesday that the decision to halt the search for surviving passengers of the diving boat Conception was not “easy,” but came due to a lack of witnesses reporting anyone entering the water.

In total, 39 people — 33 passengers and six crew members — were onboard the boat when it erupted in flames just after 3 a.m. on Monday while all but five crew members were asleep below deck.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff-Coroner Bill Brown confirmed at the press conference that 20 bodies — 11 female and nine male — have since been recovered and transported to the coroner’s bureau.

Brown said that divers spotted between four and six additional bodies beneath the sunken wreckage of the boat, but that the boat’s positioning made them impossible to recover by nightfall. He said that the boat would soon be stabilized in order for divers to bring the bodies back to shore.

“We want to make sure that this process is done safely and methodically,” he said, noting they were operating in up to 65 feet of water. “If the vessel is inverted and upside down, it’s going to have equipment hanging down on it, so we certainly don’t want to put our divers in any kind of distress or harm’s way.”

Conception on fire
AP/Shutterstock

Authorities have not yet identified the victims, though Brown said the process is “underway,” and that officials will be using DNA to make positive identifications with the help of family members.

Rochester said that the Coast Guard, along with other agencies, conducted seven missions using three helicopter crews and multiple surface assets that covered an area of approximately 160 miles during its search efforts, which clocked in just under 24 hours.

AP/Shutterstock

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She also noted that the boat would have had smoke detectors, a fixed firefighting system in the engine room, portable extinguishers at both entryways, and extinguishers on the bridge and main deck.

“According to the last examination inspection that the Coast Guard did, all apparatus was accounted for,” she said, noting it came in August, though whether it was 2018 or 2019 remains unclear.

The officials also clarified reports about a pair of mayday calls that came from the Conception, explaining that a first call, in which the caller said “I can’t breathe,” came from the boat, while a second came from the Good Samaritan rescue boat the Grape Escape, which helped save five surviving crew members.

Audio recordings of the calls were released in the media, featuring the dispatcher asking questions that referenced the passengers being locked or trapped below deck with no firefighting equipment.

Rochester said that there are no locked doors in accommodation spaces on ships like the Conception, while Brown noted that the escape routes were likely not locked, just blocked.

Man mourning on Santa Barbara Harbor
Ringo H W Chiu/AP/Shutterstock

“There was a stairwell to get down the main entryway up and down and there was an escape hatch and it would appear that both of those were blocked by fire,” he said.

Despite media reports from witnesses that claimed to have seen an explosion, Brown said any explosions likely occurred after the fire had already begun.

Officials did not confirm the identity of any victims, though Brown said a majority of people on the trip appear to have been from Santa Cruz, San Jose, and the Bay Area. He also said that “all indications” pointed to the ship’s captain being one of the five surviving crew members.

Truth Aquatics, which owns the Conception, could not be immediately reached by PEOPLE. Representatives from the company declined to comment to other news outlets.

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