The National Transportation Safety Board worked Wednesday to try to determine the cause of a fire aboard a commercial diving boat near Santa Cruz Island that killed 34 people, including two residents from Santa Monica.
Acquaintances posted online tributes to the pair — Marybeth Guiney and Charles McIlvain, both of whom were diving enthusiasts and lived in the same Santa Monica condominium complex. The pair was among nearly three dozen people trapped aboard the Conception when it caught fire and sank early Monday morning.
The NTSB began its investigation Tuesday morning with a team of 16 investigators who specialize in engineering, operation and fire prevention and expected to be on site for a week to 10 days, working with the Coast Guard and first responders.
Board member Jennifer Homendy told reporters “this was a terrible tragedy” and said she “cannot imagine what the families are going through.”
Homendy said investigators first want to determine the cause of the fire and what can be done to prevent similar tragedies.
The boat was not required to have any type of black box recording device, the NTSB said.
One of the key questions investigators will look into is why no one below deck was able to escape the flames, Majorie Murtagh Cooke, the former director of the NTSB Office of Marine Safety, told the Los Angeles Times.
“With 30-plus people dying, the investigation could lead to changes in the way vessels are designed or protected depending on the findings,” Cooke told the paper.
Updates on the investigation were expected to be given on Wednesday and Thursday, Homendy said.
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester announced Tuesday morning that the search effort at the site had transitioned from a rescue operation to a recovery effort.
“Search and recovery efforts have ceased,” Rochester said.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said 20 bodies had been recovered — 11 female and nine male — and four to six bodies had been seen by divers inside the burned and sunken vessel.
Brown said investigators would be working to compare DNA samples from the bodies with samples from relatives of the victims. He said investigators would compare the identities with a list of 34 names of people believed to have died aboard the vessel to make sure they actually were aboard the vessel when it sank.
No identifications have been released.
The Coast Guard launched several assets from its Los Angeles-Long Beach base when the first mayday call was heard at 3:15 a.m. Monday, Rochester said.
Five crew members aboard the Conception jumped from the burning ship and were evacuated aboard a good Samaritan pleasure craft named Grape Escape, according to Rochester. One crew member suffered non life-threatening injuries, according to the Coast Guard.
Crews from the Coast Guard, Santa Barbara Fire Department and Ventura County Fire Department responded and were fighting the fire when the vessel sank around 7:20 a.m. while it was 20 yards offshore in 64 feet of water. Divers with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department assisted in the search. Personnel from the Long Beach Police Department assisted in establishing a security perimeter.
Rochester said the crew probably was able to escape because they were awake and above deck when the fire broke out.
Brown said Tuesday that investigators had received statements written by the surviving crew members, but had not yet interviewed them.
Recordings that had been released of mayday calls may have “conflated,” Brown said.
Brown also said radio calls regarding “explosions” apparently were made well after the fire began, and that there were no indications that explosions had preceded the fire.
The Conception departed Saturday morning and was scheduled to return Tuesday morning, Brown said.
A shrine of candles and flowers appeared on the Santa Barbara dock where the Conception was scheduled to return. A pair of blue fins were placed at the memorial with the message “We love you Conception,” written on them.
The Coast Guard said family members looking for information about their loved ones should call 833-688-5551 or 800-400-1572. A Family Assistance Center was set up at Earl Warren Fair Grounds, 3400 Calle Real, Santa Barbara.