Crew from dive boat fire says they tried to save passengers

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Crew members of the dive boat that was consumed in flames off the California coast on Labor Day told investigators they tried to rescue the 34 people who were still on board in the inferno, the National Transportation Board said Thursday.

Of the 39 people aboard the 75-foot dive boat Conception, only five crew members, including the captain, were found alive. The others, who were in the lower sleeping deck, likely got trapped when the roaring blaze blocked their escape routes, authorities have said. The crew was on the upper wheelhouse deck.

"What's emerging from the interviews, and these are individual interviews with NTSB investigators, is a harrowing story of the moments before the fire erupted on the vessel," Jennifer Homendy of the NTSB told reporters.

One crew member said he awoke to a noise and left his bunk to see flames erupting from the galley area below, Homendy said.

The crew members tried to get down the ladder, but it was engulfed in flames. They were forced to go down to the main deck from the bridge, and one of them broke their leg getting down, according to Homendy.

A chart showing the layout of the bunk room on the website of the company that owns the Conception appears to show the main way in and out of the bunk room is through the galley.

Crew members then went to the double doors of the galley to try to get to the passengers, but it too was engulfed in flames, NTSB investigators were told. They then tried and failed to get in through a window in the front of the vessel, Homendy said. "At that point, due to heat, flames and smoke, the crew had to jump from the boat," Homendy said.

Some crew members swam to a skiff on the back of the boat, picked up the other crew and they made their way to a nearby vessel to call 911, Homendy said.

"At that point, they left the vessel and turned back to the Conception in the skiff to try to rescue any survivors," she said.

"What I shared with you is from what we heard from them," Homendy said. "So now it's our job to take that and develop a timeline."

The NTSB will also evaluate whether there were "issues with evacuation or responses" or "escape survival factors," she said. The NTSB also interviewed the owner operator of the dive boat, Homendy said, without giving any details.

Thirty-three bodies have been recovered, leaving one still to be found, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office's joint information center said Wednesday.

Passengers in the lower deck probably were blocked in by the fire, authorities and the boat's owner said. "There was a stairwell to get down the main entryway, up and down, and there was an escape hatch. And it would appear as though both of those were blocked by fire," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Tuesday.

The boat was about 20 miles off the mainland coast, near Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands National Park.

Adam Tucker, the NTSB investigator in charge, said earlier the Conception was not required to have a black box on board and was not voluntarily fitted with one.

Coast Guard Capt. Jason Neubauer told reporters on Wednesday that the Conception was not required to have a sprinkler system.

Alcohol testing was done on four out of five surviving crew members, Neubauer said. The results were negative, officials said. The crew member who was injured was not tested as he was being transported to the hospital during that time frame. Drug test results are pending.

A mayday call revealed the confusion between a Coast Guard dispatcher and the Conception's captain. But only the dispatcher's words could be heard.

The captain apparently reports a fire and provides a location. The dispatcher is heard saying, "And there's 33 people on board the vessel that's on fire, they can't get off? ... Roger, are they locked inside the boat? ... Roger, can you get back on board and unlock the boat, unlock the door so they can get off? ... Roger, you don't have any firefighting gear at all? No fire extinguishers or anything?"

Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said there was "a lot of adrenaline, a lot of confusion" over the radio communication system. She said she believes the radio dispatcher "was trying to ask for information." She said "there are no locked doors in accommodation spaces" where passengers slept on the boat. "The only privacy that you have ... are curtains," she said.

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