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Search and salvage operations are underway again in deadly Conception fire

Divers were back in the water searching for the 34th victim of the Conception disaster on Tuesday, and a salvage operation to raise the wreckage from the deadly fire and sinking will restart this week, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.

Brown gave the county Board of Supervisors an update on the dive boat tragedy, in which 33 passengers and a crew member died in the below-deck bunk area of the Santa Barbara-based vessel on Labor Day.

“I’m sure you’ve heard at this point it is qualifying as the worst disaster in terms of loss of human life in the recorded history of our county, and it is a significant event obviously in modern times in terms of a maritime disaster in California,” Brown said.

The surviving five crew members told investigators that they attempted to reach the passengers but the flames were too intense, and they leaped overboard and used the Conception’s skiff on the back of the boat to reach a nearby vessel, the Grape Escape.

Both boats were anchored about 20 yards offshore of Santa Cruz Island at the time, on the mainland side.

Family and friends of the Conception passengers were dealt a huge blow when officials announced a shift to a search-and-recovery mission on Sept. 3, the day after the fire, after determining that none of the below-deck passengers had survived.

Dive teams have recovered 33 of the 34 victims, and resumed searching Tuesday after weather forced a pause in the efforts over the weekend, Brown said.

“As we speak, we have an operation underway today, and we will be heavily engaged in the next three days in that effort,” he said. “There’s also a salvage operation that, barring inclement weather, will be underway Wednesday and Thursday possibly as well.”

The Coroner’s Bureau is investigating the cause of death for the victims and identifying the remains with DNA comparisons to family members.

“The preliminary indications from our Coroner’s Office and pathologist, all the victims we have recovered, 33 of the 34, all died of smoke inhalation, and they had died prior to being burned by the fire,” Brown said Tuesday.

The Coroner’s Bureau has released 22 names of the 33 people found, and will likely identify the rest of them this week, according to Brown.

“I think unfortunately we’re getting better at responding to these tragedies, and we just hope this is the last one,” Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said.

“As you say, we have had more than our share of these terrible tragedies during the last few years, but on every occasion, including this one our people have really risen to that and are just incredibly professional and they make me very proud as well,” Brown said.

Multiple investigations are underway into the incident, and the county Fire Department is looking into the cause and origin of the fire.

County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said his department is getting assistance, including technical resources, from other agencies on the case, including the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the National Transportation Safety Board.

“The relationship with our partners and neighbors is exceptional; Nobody sits around and wonders whose area it is, they just immediately respond,” Hartwig said.

The Ventura County Fire Department sent two fire boats to the scene first, even though it ended up being in Santa Barbara County jurisdiction, he said.

The U.S. Coast Guard received a Mayday distress call about 3:14 a.m. Sept. 2, and resources responded from the Coast Guard, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Ventura and Santa Barbara county fire departments. Fire boats were sent from Ventura and the Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol, according to Brown.

The boat was engulfed in flames when rescue teams arrived at the scene – more than 20 miles away across the Santa Barbara Channel — and the fire was extinguished around 5:23 a.m., although it “flashed up again several times,” Brown said.

The vessel sank at about 7:20 a.m.

“As first responders, I can tell you we’re not used to not being able to save and preserve life, and that was probably the most frustrating part for us, and I think I can speak for the sheriff and his team as well,” Hartwig said.

Search warrants were served Sunday at the offices of Truth Aquatics, the Conception’s owner, at the Santa Barbara Harbor.

The warrants were obtained by the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service, which was being assisted by investigators from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to sheriff’s Lt. Erik Raney.

Meanwhile, the NTSB is investigating the safety systems aboard the 1981 vessel, and officials have toured the Truth, a similar vessel to the Conception also owned by Truth Aquatics.

Smoke alarm systems and emergency exits are sure to be scrutinized.

Brown has said that the main stairs out of the bunk area and the emergency hatch both led to the second deck galley area, and both were blocked by fire.

The FBI said on Tuesday that they are asking members of the public for information regarding the deadly blaze. The agency asked that people either call 1-800-CALL-FBI and choose the No. 4 prompt for the FBI case currently highlighted in the news, or send images, video or other communications to www.fbi.gov/boatfire.

Tribune reporter Gabby Ferreira contributed to this story.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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