Coast Guard Suspends Search for Survivors of Conception Boat Fire

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U.S. Coast Guard Captain Rochester speaking outside Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office

By edhat staff

The U.S. Coast Guard has suspended searches for possible survivors of the Conception boat fire near Santa Cruz island that took place early Monday morning.

Captain Monica Rochester spoke to reports outside the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office during a press conference Tuesday morning.

The search was suspended on 9:40 a.m. Tuesday after 23 hours of searching with 7 missions covering 160 square miles. There were no signs of distress or debris located which contributed to the transition of recovery and investigation efforts.

"It's never an easy decision," Rochester said of the suspended search efforts. She later continued saying it's safe to assume all 34 passengers did not survive. The Coast Guard will continue working alongside partner agencies throughout the recovery and investigation phases. 

Graphic depicting the approximately 160 square miles of combined search patterns conducted by Coast Guard assets in support of the Conception incident, Sept. 3, 2019, off Santa Cruz Island (U.S. Coast Guard graphic)

Around 3:30 a.m. Monday, the Coast Guard responded to a mayday call of a 75-foot diving vessel, Conception, that was fully engulfed in fire. There were 39 people aboard, only 5 survived.

The Victims

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown stated 16 additional bodies were located and brought to the Coroner's office Monday afternoon for a total of 20 recovered victims. They are only identified as 11 females and 9 males. 

Brown stated divers had seen another 4 to 6 bodies in the wreckage of the boat but are unable to recover the bodies due to the unstable boat positioning. 

Crews will work to stabilize the boat on Tuesday with hopes of entering the wreckage to search and recover victims, who also may be within the 1/2 mile debris field. 

Brown stated the bodies exhibit "extreme thermal damage" and DNA is needed to properly identify them. A Rapid DNA Analysis Tool that was used to identify victims in the Camp Fire will also be used to identify the Conception victims. They're currently working to map the DNA profiles of the 20 recovered victims by using DNA samples from family members. Many, if not all, of the victims, will need DNA analysis for proper identification, said Brown.

The Family Assistance Center has received over 100 calls from family and friends who believe they had loved ones onboard. Brown urged family members to come forward as four families have yet to be connected with investigators.

Anecdotally, Brown stated he heard a 17-year-old was on board as well as people in their 60's, but they do not have an exact age range of the victims. He believes the majority are from Santa Cruz, San Jose, and the San Francisco Bay area. Earlier edhat reported Kristy Finstad, 41 of Santa Cruz, is believed to be on board. Read more here.

The is no initial cause of death. Earlier reports from a Coast Guard spokesperson stated some injuries were consistent with drowning but this has not been confirmed as a formal autopsy has not taken place.

A Coast Guard Sector San Diego MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew responds to the vessel Conception boat fire Sept. 2, 2019 (US Coast Guard video)

The Investigation

Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig stated his department is committed to expending all necessary means to find out the cause and origin of this fire.

Captain Rochester stated smoke detectors are required on the boat. This boat had a fixed firefighting system in the engine room, portable fire extinguishers at both exits/entries, on the bridge, and on the main deck. According to the last inspection by the Coast Guard, it was all intact.

Rochester stated there were no locked doors and it was an open sleeping area where only curtains provided privacy. She confirmed there's no indication at this point that any of the below-deck passengers were able to make it out of the sleeping area.

Sheriff Brown confirmed it appears the passengers were trapped. There was a stairwell and an escape hatch, it appears both were blocked by fire, he said.

The Crew

Sheriff Brown stated the crew has provided written statements and will be formally interviewed today but this is information they cannot release at this point.  He confirmed the captain of the ship was one of the survivors and one crew member perished because they were asleep below with the guests.

Brown further described the layout of the boat where the bottom floor was the sleeping area, the second floor had a galley/salon, and the third floor contained crew quarters (beds) and the bridge for the vessel. He stated it was perfectly normal for the crew to be up there.

There was no comment when asked if the crew was awake and/or working at the time of the incident, Rochester said they would have had at least one person awake on a night watch. 

Explosions and Mayday Calls

Brown stated the reports of the mayday calls have been "conflated." He said the first mayday call may have been from Conception where there's information of someone not being able to breathe. The second mayday call is from the Grape Escape, clarifying these are not the same conversations.

The Grape Escape captain has reportedly stated he heard explosions well after the fire was underway. Brown confirmed there is no indication at this point an explosion proceeded the event. Rochester seconded this stating it is all under investigation and there is no confirmation of an explosion.

Photo: Mike Eliason / SBCFD


A Family Assistance Center has been set up at the Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara in Warren Hall. Family, friends, and loved ones of those affected by this incident will be able to receive information, support, resources, and mental health counseling. Members of local clergy, Chaplains, Hospice, Red Cross, emergency personnel, and more will be able to provide services.

It will be open through Thursday from 9:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. with extended hours and days as needed. Additionally, a family assistance number has been established at (833) 688-5551 or (800) 400-1572.​

Sheriff Brown appeared to choke up discussing the emotional toll this event has taken on first responders and emergency personnel. He discussed the humanity of this event is very evident and it has a broad impact on our community.

A followup press conference has yet to be announced.


 September 2, 2019: Four Bodies Recovered, 30 Still Missing in Boat Fire

 September 2, 2019: Sen. Feinstein Calls for Investigation After Boat Fire

 September 3, 2019: Marine Biologist and Diving Tour Owner Believed to be Victim of Boat Fire

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a-1567591296 Sep 04, 2019 03:01 AM
Coast Guard Suspends Search for Survivors of Conception Boat Fire

The escape hatch and the stairway from the sleeping area both exited into the middle deck, where the galley was. The crew who escaped were on a deck above the galley. If the fire started and spread rapidly in the galley deck, there was no escape path from below.

PitMix Sep 04, 2019 08:56 AM
Coast Guard Suspends Search for Survivors of Conception Boat Fire

2nd hatch exit was reportedly 2'x2' and first you had to use the bunk beds to get up to the ceiling. Even if not blocked by flames this would have been a difficult and slow way to evacuate 34 people. They are thinking the rules on exits will change as a result of this tragedy.

Factotum Sep 03, 2019 09:34 PM
Coast Guard Suspends Search for Survivors of Conception Boat Fire

ShastaGuy: There was a second hatch exit. Everything was carefully explained to the passengers during the mandatory safety drill, before the ship was allowed to leave port. Please wait at least until the preliminary report expected in 10 days is out, before you make up "facts" about this incident.

Shasta Guy Sep 03, 2019 09:23 PM
Coast Guard Suspends Search for Survivors of Conception Boat Fire

The Ghost Ship warehouse is what I was thinking too. I’ve never been on the Conception before, however after looking at lots of photos on the Truth Aquatics website, there appears to be no secondary exits in the form of windows or hatches for the lower section of that ship. Those poor people. I can only hope that they instantly passed out due to lack of oxygen.

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