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‘The worst call of our careers’: How 2 first responders rushed to help boat fire victims

Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol Officer Karl Halamicek was alone on the graveyard shift in the early morning hours of Labor Day. All was calm from his perch overlooking the harbor as he monitored several, mostly quiet radio frequencies.

Suddenly, about 3:30 a.m., a broken and weak radio distress call came in reporting a fire on a dive boat at Santa Cruz Island.

Within moments, Halamicek received a telephone call from the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles, requesting mutual aid for the mayday call. The Coast Guard told him the fire was aboard the Conception, anchored on the island’s north side, and that passengers were trapped on board.

Halamicek, an eight-year Harbor Patrol veteran, immediately called his supervisor and then Officers Nathan Aldridge, who was on call, and Ryan Kelly, a 16-year veteran who was due to begin his 10-hour shift later that morning.

As Aldridge and Kelly made their way to the harbor, Halamicek began preparing for an immediate departure to Santa Cruz Island, a little over 20 miles away. When his fellow officers arrived minutes later, they quickly decided which of the three patrol boats should respond, who should stay behind to staff the harbor and who would go to the aid of the Conception.

The 75-foot dive boat, owned by Truth Aquatics and based in the Santa Barbara Harbor, was on the last day of a three-day scuba diving excursion around the island. It carried 33 recreational divers and a crew of six.

Authorities say five crew members, including the captain, were asleep in their quarters on the top deck, but managed to escape by jumping into the water after discovering the fire and being driven back by the flames.

The fire, whose cause has not yet been determined, burned so quickly that it blocked a narrow stairway and an emergency hatch leading to the upper decks from the lowest deck where the 34 victims were bunked.

According to authorities, the victims — ranging in age from 16 to 62 — had no chance of escaping and likely succumbed to smoke inhalation.

All 34 bodies have been recovered and identified, and the boat’s wreckage has been raised from the sea floor and released to the National Transportation Safety Board for investigation.

Responding to the call

The initial distress call had indicated there were 20 to 30 crew and passengers on board the burning boat, which led the Harbor Patrol officers to anticipate that there likely would be multiple victims requiring rescue and first aid.

With the objectives of arriving at the scene as quickly as possible and having maximum deck space to accommodate survivors, the decision was made to launch Boat 3 with a crew of only two.

Kelly and Halamicek had proven themselves in past emergency rescue operations. Exactly two years before, to the day, they worked together to pull 16 people from the water in the immediate aftermath of Santa Barbara’s freak microburst that wreaked havoc in the harbor.

They told Noozhawk that the experience heavily influenced their decision to take the boat with a rear platform for easy access to the water and the one with the largest amount of deck space.

Not wanting “to turn a 25-knot boat into a 15-knot boat” with the added weight of an additional crew member, the pair launched Boat 3 and headed out to assist in the fire suppression and rescue effort.

It was 4 a.m.

During the almost hourlong trip to Platts Harbor, at the north end of the island, Halamicek and Kelly alternated positions at the helm, allowing each officer to don his firefighting gear, prepare the water rescue equipment and ready the boat’s firefighting system.

Harbor Patrol officers wear many hats and perform a wide variety of duties. They are designated peace officers, certified California state marine firefighters, certified emergency medical technicians, certified lifeguards, licensed boat captains through the Coast Guard, and certified hazmat specialists.

Conditions on the ocean that morning presented several challenges. In addition to the nearly moonless night, dense fog shrouded the Santa Barbara Channel during most of the passage, resulting in minimal visibility. Relying solely on their longitude and latitude headings, the officers stayed the course at the boat’s maximum speed of 25 knots.

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The Santa Barbara-based Conception dive boat caught fire and sank early Monday near Santa Cruz Island, and 34 people are missing and feared dead. Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Approximately 20 minutes from Platts Harbor, the patrol boat emerged from a fog bank and, for the first time, Halamicek and Kelly saw the bright orange glow of the Conception ablaze.

They continued hearing distress transmissions and radio traffic, including one call made from the Grape Escape, a private boat anchored nearby that had become a sanctuary for several surviving Conception crew members.

The message transmitted from the cabin cruiser indicated that the Conception was fully engulfed in flames and there did not appear to be any survivors in the water.

“Once we heard no one was in the water it was a turning point,” said Kelly, whose first waterfront job was as a deckhand on the Conception nearly 20 years before.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘This is going to be bad. Really bad.’ Our hearts dropped.”

Halamicek agreed.

“At that point, we knew this would be the worst call of our careers — by far,” he said.

As the patrol boat arrived at the scene, the scale of the inferno became clear.

“The flames were growing right in front of us,” Kelly said.

The fight to extinguish the Conception Fire

Also on scene that morning were two 45-foot Coast Guard patrol boats, a Ventura Harbor Patrol boat, a Ventura County Fire Department vessel out of Channel Islands Harbor, and a private tow boat, TowBoatUS Ventura.

Although Platts Harbor is farther away from Ventura than Santa Barbara, the four vessels already there were significantly faster, with top speeds of roughly 45 knots — some 20 knots faster than Halamicek and Kelly’s boat.

For a time, the initial firefighting efforts seemed to be successful, with the blaze aboard the Conception knocked down significantly. But then it reignited.

The firefighters out of Ventura continued the battle, knocking down the flames over and over, hoping to get a handle on the quick-burning blaze.

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Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol Boat 3 sprays water on the Conception, which was burning out of control when first responders arrived on the scene off Santa Cruz Island. Ventura County Fire Department photo

The Conception had broken free from its burned-through anchor line and drifted against the rocks along the nearby shore. In addition to the challenge of searching for survivors and victims, Halamicek and Kelly realized there was a very real threat that the still-burning dive boat could ignite a vegetation fire on the island.

With less clearance in the water, the other responders had been forced to back off from the firefight. But the Santa Barbara patrol boat’s significantly shallower draft enabled Halamicek and Kelly to move in closer and lob water and foam at the Conception.

Still, the rocky shore made firefighting difficult, if not impossible.

“My monitor said 60 feet, but just to my right I could see a huge rock at about 5 feet,” Kelly said.

Ultimately, their efforts proved futile, with the foam landing just shy of the intended target. Realizing what was happening, however, the skipper of TowBoat US Ventura edged closer.

The boat, owned and operated by Capt. Paul Amaral, provides vessel assistance and towing services for mariners, in much the same way AAA tends to motorists. Amaral’s boat is a rigid hull, fully inflatable vessel with an even shallower draft than Harbor Patrol Boat 3.

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Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol Officer Karl Halamicek directs water and foam on the Conception in the pre-dawn hours. Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol photo

Despite the danger and intense heat, and working alone, Amaral maneuvered his boat alongside the burning hull of the Conception. He threw a grappling hook onto the bow and the hook took hold.

With a tow rope attached to the secured hook, Amaral was able to pull the burning dive boat away from the island and into deeper water.

Kelly recalled the perilous conditions at that point.

“The Conception was completely reignited, and the heat was intense,” he said. “I could feel the heat of the fire from inside the wheelhouse while we were trying to get the foam on it. It was a really hot fire.”

Once the Conception had been towed into deeper water, Halamicek and Kelly were able to resume their firefighting efforts.

“We attacked it for 15 to 20 minutes,” Halamicek said. “We used all foam on board, spraying stern to bow, back and forth.”

Kelly said they were finally able to get the upper hand.

“We saw no more flames, only white smoke,” he added, explaining that white smoke is indicative of steam and not an active fire.

Recovering victims after watching the wreckage sink

As dawn broke, the first responders realized the Conception could sink. The fire was out but the boat was full of water and the hull was burned to the waterline.

Fearful that the vessel would go under, the flotilla considered using de-watering pumps to drain the damaged hull and keep it and its contents afloat. Unfortunately, the Conception was too unstable to set the pumps aboard.

After previously towing the burning boat to deeper water, Amaral set about to pull its hulking remains back closer to shore, where recovery efforts would be less problematic. But it was obvious that the effort to prevent the Conception from sinking was futile.

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TowBoat US Ventura pulls the sinking Conception closer to shore in an attempt to keep the wreckage in shallower water, making it easier for divers to locate and recover the bodies of victims. Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol photo

Halamicek and Kelly described the sinking as “quick.” The stern went first, and within five minutes the Conception was submerged with only a small portion of its bow showing.

Amaral released his line before the bow disappeared under the water, leaving behind a large debris field and a strong smell of diesel fuel.

With the Conception fully submerged, Amaral gingerly steered his boat into the debris field, where he spotted what appeared to be a body. Returning to Harbor Patrol Boat 3, he picked up Halamicek with his rescue and recovery gear, and then got two crew members from one of the Coast Guard vessels.

The team returned to the location where Amaral thought he had seen a body. Sure enough, one was floating in the water — the first of what would be 34 dead victims of the Conception disaster.

They carefully lifted the body aboard and took it to a Coast Guard boat. The solemn procedure was repeated three more times that morning, each time using specialized equipment to recover and transfer the victims.

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A debris field forms behind the Conception as the dive boat sinks in Platts Harbor on the north side of Santa Cruz Island. Once it started to submerge, the boat sank within five minutes, its bow the last to disappear. Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol photo

Later that morning, the Coast Guard transported the four bodies to the Navy pier in the Santa Barbara Harbor, just a few hundred yards from Sea Landing, where the ill-fated Conception had departed two mornings before and had been due to return that afternoon.

The remains were placed on gurneys and turned over to the county Coroner’s Bureau, whose grim responsibilities were to try to determine their identities and notify next of kin.

Back at Santa Cruz Island, divers and additional recovery resources were beginning to arrive. Halamicek and Kelly remained on the scene, continuing to search the debris field and assisting in the recovery operation.

Later that day, less than 10 hours after they started, the Coast Guard released them from the Harbor Patrol’s mutual aid obligation and they returned to the Santa Barbara Harbormaster’s Office with heavy hearts and profound sadness.

Noozhawk contributing writers Peter Hartmann and Stacey Wright can be reached at news@noozhawk.com.
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