We're learning today that the majority of the 34 people aboard the Conception, the boat that caught fire early Monday off the Santa Barbara coast, were local residents from around the Bay Area and Santa Cruz County — and the boat had been chartered by a Santa Cruz-based adventure tour company.
At a press conference Tuesday, as the SF Chronicle reports, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said that most of the missing and the dead were Bay Area residents. He also confirmed some news reports like this one by the Mercury News that four of the victims were a pair of parents and children from a charter high school in Santa Cruz. Also, according to the Mercury News, there were "a father and daughter who were longtime patrons of a Sunnyvale dive shop," as well as a family of five from Stockton. None of the victims have been identified, and the recovery admission continues Tuesday afternoon. A total of 20 bodies have been found.
Only five people are believed to have survived the tragedy, which is being called the worst maritime disaster in California in recent memory. All five were crew members on the Conception. The leader of the tour group, Kristy Finstad, is also among the missing. As the Chronicle reports, Finstad's company, Worldwide Diving Adventures of Santa Cruz, chartered the 75-foot vessel from Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics. All passengers on board were asleep in bunk beds in shared quarters when the fire broke out. There was reportedly only one staircase and passage out of the sleeping quarters.
Worldwide Diving Adventures was founded by Finstad's father, Bill Finstad, in the 1970s. On the company's website, it says "Kristy’s first dives were under Bill’s arm, a toddler breathing from his octopus in the Channel Islands."
According to the New York Times, a man who made the distress call could be heard in a recording saying, "Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! I can’t breathe!"
The Chronicle spoke to Scott Jackson, who owns Bay Area Scuba in Burlingame, who says that Truth Aquatics' reputation for safety is stellar and "They have been doing [this] for years and years. They very much know what they are doing."
Labor Day is known as prime diving time around the Channel Islands, where the boat was anchored and where the passengers aboard were set to be awoken for their scuba dive about 45 minutes before fire engulfed the boat. Actor Rob Lowe has said that he had been on the Conception on diving trips "many times."
Earlier coverage by the Times detailed how the five male crew members escaped the flames in an inflatable craft, and reached out to a couple on a nearby boat for help.
No immediate indications of the cause of the fire have been reported. The boat was said to have a fire suppression system in the engine room, but the middle deck of the ship was occupied by a kitchen, with the sleeping quarters on the bottom deck. The Times noted from the boat company's website that the "vessel also had an onboard, built-in barbecue."
As Sheriff Brown said in a Monday press conference, "You have a vessel in the open sea that is in the middle of the night," and "you couldn’t have asked for a worse situation."
Top image courtesy of the Santa Barbara Fire Department