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Deadly Conception Fire Followed Day of Diving, Birthday Celebrations

A 3-day diving expedition to California’s Channel Islands was meant to double as a birthday celebration for three passengers aboard the Conception, including a 17-year-old girl.

Sadly, their Labor Day weekend adventure ended in tragedy early Monday morning, when a devastating fire ignited aboard the 75-foot dive boat moored off Santa Cruz Island.

Conception Fire Victims Were Sleeping Below Deck

All 33 passengers on board were asleep in close quarters below deck when the fire broke out. In the end, just five crew members sleeping topside managed to escape the fast-moving flames.

“It was horrific, the pounding,” Shirley Hansen told the Los Angeles Times “Our boat is very well made. Having that sound come through [showed] they were very in need of help.”

Mrs. Hansen and her husband Bob were anchored just a few hundred feet from the ill-fated Conception. It was a peaceful night in Platts Harbor, and the pounding shortly after 3:00 a.m. startled the sleeping couple.

Outside in a dinghy were the Conception’s sole surviving crew members – wet, distraught, and some in just their underwear. At least one man appeared to have broken his leg and another had injured his ankle.

By the time the Hansen’s managed to help the stunned survivors aboard, the Conception was completely engulfed in flames.

2 Crew Members Made Futile Search for Survivors

“As it was burning, there would be explosions going off every couple of minutes,” Mr. Hansen said. “It was probably some of the dive tanks exploding. It made me feel so helpless.”

Some of the crew members were crying, and one said his girlfriend remained below deck. Others described the birthday celebration for three passengers, including a teenage girl who had boarded the ship with her parents, held only hours earlier.

Two crew members returned to the dinghy, hoping to find additional survivors of the Conception fire. But there was no one left to rescue.

U.S. Coast Guard divers managed to recover the remains of 20 people by Tuesday, including 11 women and nine men. As of this morning, they had found another 13 and were continuing the search for the fire’s final victim.

Victims of the Conception Dive Boat Fire

According to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff, the 34 people who died aboard the Conception included children as young as 17 and adults in their 60’s. Most were from Northern California, but others had traveled from Ohio and Arizona to board the ship.

Three members of the same family and five members of another – including several children – perished in the fire, as did a popular physics teacher from the Fremont Unified School District and his daughter.

The co-owner of Worldwide Diving Adventures, the local company that had chartered the Conception from Truth Aquatics, was also among those killed Monday morning. According to CNN, the 41-year-old woman had grown up swimming off the Channel Islands and was leading the dive trip.

“My mission is to inspire appreciation for our underwater world,” she said in her biography. “I feel incredibly fortunate to be in the service of helping people invest in experiences of a lifetime.”

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