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Boat fire in California: 33 bodies found; search for the last victim begins

Coast Guard personnel recovered the bodies of 33 people who died in a massive fire aboard the Concept, which began when a 75-foot ship was moored off the coast of Santa Cruz Island on Labor Day. One person is still unknown, authorities said Wednesday.

Thirty-nine people aboard a three-day dive trip
when the fire broke out. Five crewmen jumped aboard and rowed on a neighboring ship. They survived.

Officials have restored the remains of 20 people – 11 women and 9 men – as of Tuesday. Thirteen more were found Wednesday, said Coast Guard Lieutenant Matt Kroll.

The names of those killed in a fire off the coast of Ventura County

  FBI Divers

FBI Divers are preparing to depart Santa Barbara Harbor on Wednesday morning for the route to where Conception splashes from Santa Cruz Island early this week.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

On Wednesday morning, about a dozen FBI divers gathered at the Port of Santa Barbara to look for the last victim. They will join divers from other government agencies to cope with the area where the concept sank days earlier, said Santa Barbara County Lt. Brian Olmsted.

About three dozen divers have participated in the search effort in the last few days. They go out for hours at a time and come back "emotionally exhausted," Olmsted says.

"Our priority is to try to find the last victim, as well as objects that would be of interest to understand what happened," he said. "You want to close the family closure."

At the docks nearby, National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homdi, a Coast Guard captain. Jason Neubauer and investigators toured the concept ship's sister ship, the 80-foot Vision, also owned by True Aquatics.

Although slightly larger than conception, Vision has a similar layout. Single and double beds are stacked two and three high in the dormitories of the boat below deck. A wooden staircase leads from the sleeping area up to the gallery. Authorities say the conception exit – along with an emergency hatch that opens near the boat's diving deck

A day earlier, about a dozen FBI Evidence Response Team agents also boarded Vision to take photos of the ship's interior, decks, stairs, and entrances. They nailed sheets of capital letters to some parts of the boat – "A" to the lifeguard, "B" to the door to the upper deck – and took photos from several angles.

  NTSB Member Jennifer Homendy

Member of the Transportation Safety Board Jennifer Homendy at the port of Santa Barbara aboard Vision, sister to a Conception ship that burned off Santa Cruz earlier this week.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Homendy said the federal agency began its investigation Tuesday morning about the cause of the fire, just after Coast Guard crews announced they would stop looking for trapped passengers trapped below deck when the fire broke out. Rescuers said there were no signs of additional survivors.

"It was a terrible tragedy," Hommy said Tuesday. "I can't imagine what families are going through."

A team of 16 investigators specializing in engineering, operations, survival factors and fire prevention will be in place for seven to 10 days.

The NTSB may publish a preliminary report within 10 days of the incident, but the final report may take two years. The agency plans to update the public on Wednesday.

Tyler McCurdy, head of the FBI's Ventura office, said the FBI's Response Team will gather evidence on behalf of the NTSB and the sheriff's office. He would not specify the type of evidence they are collecting.

During the investigation, the NTSB will interview the five crew members who survived the fire, the first responders and the companies involved in the diving trip. Investigators will investigate crew training, safety data, survival factors and whether the boat had life jackets and other safety gear.

Homdy said she was "100% sure" that investigators would determine the cause of the fire.

If investigators reveal safety issues, the agency will issue immediate recommendations to protect the public from such incidents, she said.

Marjorie Murtagh Cooke, former director of the NTSB's Maritime Safety Office, said in an interview with The Times that investigators will try to answer several key questions, including why no one below deck is could

"Vessels must have two escape routes by law on sleeping quarters," Cook said. "It seems that both exits of the bedrooms are taking you inside the court."

If both escape routes from the bedrooms lead to the same area, which looks like a large room, a fire could potentially block

"With 30 or more people dead, the investigation can change the way vessels are designed or protected, depending on the findings," she said.

The fire engulfed the residents of Santa Barbara, many of whom have ties to the tightly clad marine community.

Over the past few years, the region has been hit by back-to-back tragedies, residents say. First, Thomas' fire burned 281,893 acres in the cities of Santa Barbara and Ventura in 2017. Then last year devastating mud broke through Montesito, destroying homes and killing at least 21 people in the Santa Barbara County poll.

Don Barthelmes, a retired diving instructor who has taught at Santa Barbara City College for 30 years, stated that he had hired the Concept many times over the years. Most recently, he was aboard her sister ship, Vision, in May. At that time, the crew explained the safety procedures and indicated the fire fighting equipment, Bartelmes said.

"[The captain] trains his crew very well. They took their training very seriously. They are very serious about instructing the boats, "he said." I can't think of a situation where it was weak. I know this crew would do everything they could to try to save people if they could. "

Perry Cabugos, who previously worked as a second conception captain and captain of other company boats, said divers often search for true aquatics ships with their friends and family.

"We have seen generations pass," Cabugos said. "You would see them come back year after year with their families and watch their children do their first dives. The diving community is a family. "

On Wednesday morning pedestrians and cyclists stop by a makeshift memorial at the victims' harbor. The memorial, which rises for several days, was filled with fresh flowers and a framed copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne's poem "The Ocean" was propped up against a photograph of the victim.

"The earth is guilty, the earth cares,
Its graves are unclean;
But restful sleep is always there,
Beneath the dark blue waves. "

" It's good to see, "said Mark Bright, who stopped by his bike path." The whole city is depressed. "

Staff writers Leila Miller and Richard Winton contributed to this report. [19659092] window.fbAsyncInit = function () {
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