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Thirty-three people had signed up to spend what promised to be a glorious Labor Day weekend aboard the Conception, a 75-foot (22-meter) boat that offered a diver’s dream: the possibility unlimited diving between giant fish and colourful underwater marine life, with gourmet meals served between dives
The destination was San Miquel, in the Channel Islands of California, where the great halibut or halibut and other fish abound, and September is the perfect time to visit, due to the waves and strong winds at other times of the year, according with the trip organizers in their promotion of $665 for a weekend.
But in the last part of the trip, the ship caught fire in front of Santa Cruz Island and was completely on fire at 3:30 a.m. on Monday, said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.
It was basically a desperate situation, authorities said, because the ship was in a remote location, in the middle of the night, with a wildfire.
“You can’t ask for a worse situation,” Brown said at a press conference.
“This is probably the worst scenario you could have,” Brown said. “You have a boat that is in the open sea, that is in the middle of the night. I mean it was 3:30 in the morning. ”
At 7:20 am, the ship began to sink. It had burned to the waterline, said Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason.
At dusk, only five people, crew members, had been found alive of the 39 who had been on board when the fire began.
20 bodies have been found, Brown told The New York Times. More than a dozen are still missing.
None of the people who were aboard the ship have been identified.
A search and rescue operation for survivors will become a recovery mission on Tuesday morning, Eliason told reporters on Monday.
“A search and rescue effort will be maintained until tomorrow’s dawn,” Eliason said. “Then we will make the unfortunate transition to recovery.”
The five rescued crew members were awake in the main cabin and could jump off the ship, but the boat was already completely engulfed in flames, said Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester. A nearby boat rescued them from the water.
The passengers were under the deck, most likely sleeping.
A call for help revealed one side of the anguished discussion between a Coast Guard dispatcher and the Concepción captain. Only the dispatcher’s words were recorded, but the recording provides an idea of the panic the captain was experiencing.
After the captain apparently reported the fire and provided a location, the dispatcher is heard saying: “And there are 33 people aboard the ship that is on fire, can’t they get off? … Received, are they locked inside the boat? … Received, can you get back on board and unlock the boat, open the door so they can get off? … Received, don’t you have any fire extinguishing equipment? Without extinguishers or anything?
Later in the conversation, the dispatcher asks: “Was it the whole crew that jumped? … Received, is the boat burning completely right now … Received, and isn’t there an escape hatch for any of the people on board? “
At one point, the caller says: “I can’t breathe.”
Truth Aquatics, the company that operates the Concepcion, did not comment to CNN.
Rochester said the boat had all the permits.
James Kohls was in Oxnard waiting to know the fate of his brother, Mike Kohls, chef and sailor of the Conception. At 4 in the morning, his brother, a lifelong surfer and father of a daughter, usually prepares breakfast for passengers, said James Kohls.
“It’s very surreal at the moment,” he told reporters. “They were going to tell me if I was one of the survivors who got off.”
Firefighters had difficulty putting out the fire, Aaron Bemis, of the Coast Guard, told CNN, because every time it was extinguished, it came back on, perhaps due to fuel on board.
“We still hope someone has swum to the shore,” Eliason told CNN. “When they anchor during the night, they do it quite close to the coast. We have to wait, but we are planning for the worst case scenario. ”
The boat was about 20 miles (32 kilometers) off the mainland coast, near Santa Cruz Island, in the Channel Islands National Park. Authorities are looking for survivors on the coast of the islands, the Coast Guard said.
The Conception was launched in 1981 and had room for bunk beds for 46 people, according to the Truth Aquatics website. The boat was fully equipped with “all necessary appliances for food preparation”, including a built-in barbecue. It had rafts and life jackets for 110 passengers.
The cause of the fire is not clear. Authorities said there were no signs of criminal activity.
“This is not a day we wish we had woken up on Labor Day and it is a very tragic event,” Rochester told a news conference.
“But I think we should all be prepared to move towards the worst of the results,” Rochester said.
Source: CNN Espanol