A southern Californian school community is grieving the death of students and a parent after a chartered boat transporting them caught alight on September 2.
Pacific Collegiate School expressed condolences to victims and their loved ones after a diving boat caught alight just before dawn off the shore of Santa Cruz Island, about 90 miles west of Los Angeles.
“Pacific Collegiate School is saddened by the tragic sinking of the diving vessel Conception over the [Labor Day] weekend,” the school said on Facebook. “While this was not a school sponsored trip, our hearts and thoughts are with the families of the victims and those yet missing, particularly those of our students and parents on board.”
The school confirmed it has made assisting any students, staff, and families affected by the tragedy a priority.
“We have been working closely with the Santa Cruz County Office of Education and Santa Cruz County Mental Health Services to activate the School Emergency Response Protocol in order to provide much-needed resources and a network of additional support to our school community,” the school said. “Please respect our need to gather as a school community, to respond privately, and to care for our students and families.”
#Conception– Concerned family members can call the info hotline @ 833-688-5551. This is for family members ONLY. Media Inquiries can be made by calling the JIC @ 805-696-1188. No new info available at this time but will be presented at 4:00 p.m. press conference. #sbsheriff
— SB Sheriff’s Office (@sbsheriff) September 2, 2019
The American High School confirmed with the Associated Press (AP) Physics Teacher Scott Chan and one of his children was also aboard the Conception, which is operated by Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics.
Fremont Unified School District spokesman Ken Blackstone described Chan as well-liked and previously revealed the teacher’s wife was not on board.
A team from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has started investigating the wreck and a total of 34 people are missing and presumed dead after the maritime tragedy, which struck while most of them were still sleeping below decks.
NTSB Member Jennifer Homendy told AP she is “100 percent confident” investigators will find the cause of the fire.
Five crew members who were already on the deck escaped alive but there is still no indication whether any of the passengers below decks escaped according to Sheriff Bill Brown from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.
What a heartbreaking day. 39 people aboard Conception on diving trip when it was engulfed in flames @ 3:30 am today near Santa Cruz Island. 5 crew members rescued, 4 decedents recovered & 4 decedents spotted on ocean floor still to be recovered. 26 people missing. #Conception pic.twitter.com/TvmJzb2koY
— SB Sheriff’s Office (@sbsheriff) September 3, 2019
Brown said several mayday radio calls were transmitted before dawn and the search has been suspended for additional survivors, with one of them coming from the burning vessel and the others from a nearby boat that rescued the five surviving crew members.
The sheriff ruled out an explosion for causing the fire, explaining witnesses who reported multiple explosions most likely saw the fire spreading to scuba diving or propane tanks.
He confirmed at least 11 female and nine male bodies have already been recovered from the wreck, with a further four or six more awaiting removal. DNA testing will be used to identify the remains.
Whether you are walking or driving, we all want to get where we need to
go safely. A friendly reminder the next time you’re on the go to look out for
one another! #GoSafelyCA #PedestrianSafetyMonth pic.twitter.com/tjBESzLPOx
— SB Sheriff’s Office (@sbsheriff) August 30, 2019
NTSB plans to stay at the scene for up to 10 days and will look into safety measures aboard the boat, such as whether it had fire extinguishers, and will interview survivors, first responders, divers, and others.
The agency is asking people who might have photos or videos to help the investigation by emailing them directly to the NTSB.
Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Calif.) told AP the tragedy had left the local community “heartbroken.”
She defended the operator’s reputation as “top drawer” and claims the boat was in “exceptionally good condition” before it became engulfed in flames. She also praised the business owner as “highly regarded and respected throughout the community.”
Deeply saddened that this search has now transitioned to a recovery operation. I remain grateful to all our first responders & public agencies working together on this. It’s important that we continue to find out all we can about what happened. https://t.co/HUZoJkQGHi
— Hannah-Beth Jackson (@SenHannahBeth) September 3, 2019
Associated Press contributed to this report.