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Gut-wrenching eyewitness account of scuba boat tragedy

PortandTerminal.com, September 3, 2019

“There are a lot of questions to be answered,” Eyewitness Shirley Hansen

SANTA CRUZ, CA – It started off as a typical cruise on the Conception commercial scuba diving boat. People were excited about going diving the next day, the crew and passengers were getting to know one another. Normal stuff. People were feeling good. Earlier, everyone had helped to celebrate three passengers’ birthdays, including that of a 17-year-old girl who was on the diving trip with her parents.

The Conception commercial scuba boat

Everyone got ready for bed, said their goodnights and looked forward to going diving the next day.

Five crew members went to sleep up top on deck. Paying passengers down below in comfort, crew up above on deck was the protocol.

And then something went terribly wrong at around 03:00 am and now 34 people are presumed dead in one of the most horrific accidents of its type ever seen.

Hope early on, but only bodies found

Search and rescue personnel moving body bags

In the hours after the Conception caught fire, officials still expressed hope they might find some of the missing alive. Perhaps someone had been able to swim to Santa Cruz Island to save themselves? But it became clear through the day those hopes were fading. Rescuers found only bodies.

As of this morning (Tuesday), the remains of 20 people — 11 female and 9 male — have been found. Fourteen people are still missing. Between four and six victims were seen by the divers still in the wreckage, but they were unable to be recovered before nightfall, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.

I am so sorry to learn about the devastating news that the Conception dive boat burned this morning off Santa Cruz Island. From the bottom of my heart, I feel totally emotional for every member of the families and friends who lost their loved ones, and for everyone involved.

Jean-Michel Cousteau

Lee Waldron, operations division chief of the Santa Barbara City Fire Department, said Monday night some of the bodies were found within the ship and others were recovered outside it.

First-hand eyewitness account

At some point, a fire broke out. There was a frantic, and frankly confusing mayday call. That call will likely be much analyzed in the follow up to this disaster. The 5 crew members up-top on deck were forced to jump overboard to escape the inferno. What happened next?

The Los Angeles Time reported today on an interview with the first two people to encounter the terrified 5 crew members who had escaped the inferno on their boat.

Shirley Hansen and her husband, Bob, had spent the day on the water and anchored their fishing boat Grape Escape in the cove. The Hansens were among the first witnesses to the pre-dawn tragedy aboard the Conception early Monday morning.

A memorial is growing at Santa Barbara Harbor where the dive boat Conception was based.  (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The Hansens were awoken the sound of pounding on their sailboat.

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

The sudden arrival of the crew members was surprising to the Hansens not only because of the early hour, about 3:30 a.m., but also because the couple thought they were alone in the cove.

Outside in a dinghy were crew members from the Conception who had escaped the fire. The men were wet, distraught, some wearing just underwear. One man appeared to have broken his leg, Shirley Hansen said. Another had injured his ankle, she said.

Shirley Hansen said she and her husband gave the crew members blankets and clothes. Some of the men were crying, one telling them that his girlfriend was still below deck on the Conception.

Boat fire off Ventura County

She said two of the crew members got back in the dinghy to see if anyone had jumped overboard.

“But they came back and there was no one that they found,” she said.

Hansen said there was so much smoke from the fire that she had an asthma attack and had to use her inhaler.

“You could see the fire from the windows from our boat,” she said. “It wasn’t far.”

The Hansens brought the most injured crew member ashore, where he was put into an ambulance, she said. The man who identified himself as the captain stayed behind with the Coast Guard, Hansen said.

She described feeling helpless as she and her husband tried to aid the crew members and watched the fireball across the water.

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

“There are a lot of questions to be answered,” she said.

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