Officials recover 33 bodies from dive boat fire; 1 still missing

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SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Only one of the 34 people feared dead in a Southern California dive boat blaze had not been found Wednesday after officials announced they had retrieved another 13 bodies.

Coast Guard Lt. Zach Farrell announced the new recoveries, saying they came at some point Tuesday evening, according to KTLA.

The Coast Guard has suspended the search for surviving victims of the deadly fire, which happened off the coast of Santa Cruz Island near Santa Barbara. Of the 39 people aboard the 75-foot dive boat Conception, only four crew members and a captain were found alive.

Passengers likely got trapped when the roaring blaze blocked their escape routes and confined them to the lower sleeping deck, authorities said. Passengers were not locked in the sleeping deck, but they were unable to flee the burning boat, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown 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," he added.

FOX 5 learned Tuesday that an Imperial Beach resident and her family were among those killed in the inferno.

Nicole Quitasol, who worked at Nicky Rottens Bar & Burger Joint, died in the fire, along with four of her family members, according to a GoFundMe campaign set up by her coworker.

"Nicole has worked with our Nicky Rottens Coronado family for years, and she will be remembered as an adventurous and loving soul," Bryn Butolph wrote.

Butolph said Quitasol loved the water and above all her dog, a Golden Retriever named Peanut Butter.

Thirty-three bodies recovered

Thirty-three people had signed up to spend the Labor day weekend scuba diving and exploring colorful underwater sea life. Now their families are facing a long, agonizing wait for answers after the ship caught fire off Santa Cruz Island on the last part of the three-day trip.

The bodies of 11 women and nine men were recovered by Tuesday, Brown said. Wednesday morning, officials announced that 13 more bodies had been recovered, leaving only one person missing.

Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said the search and rescue operation is now a recovery mission.

"It is never an easy decision to suspend search efforts," Rochester said. "We know that this is a very difficult time for families and friends of the victims."

Rapid DNA technology to be used to ID victims

Authorities will use rapid DNA technology to identify those whose bodies were burned beyond recognition, Brown said. DNA samples are being collected from family members.

The technology can simultaneously analyze five DNA samples in 90 minutes, and was used to quickly identify victims of the devastating Camp Fire in Northern California last year, federal authorities said. It can take weeks to get results in a traditional forensic lab.

The blaze swallowed most of the boat within minutes. Ventura County firefighters reached the boat within 15 minutes, but by then, it was engulfed in flames.

Firefighters struggled to extinguish the fire because the flames flared back up likely because of the fuel on board, the Coast Guard said.

The cause of the fire is under investigation

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the fire. Adam Tucker, the NTSB investigator in charge, said the Conception was not required to have a black box on board and was not voluntarily fitted with a black box.

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?"

At one point, the caller says, "I can't breathe."

Rochester, the Coast Guard captain, 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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