The U.S. Coast Guard was involved in a massive rescue operation Monday morning after a 75-foot commercial diving boat caught fire off the coast of Ventura County, trapping dozens of people. Many on the boat, which was off Santa Cruz Island, were believed to be sleeping below deck when the fire broke out and appear to have been trapped. (Photo courtesy Ventura County Fire Dept.)

Location allowed crew to escape deadly dive boat fire

The crew members who survived were likely assigned to sleep on the deck

Five crew members survived the fire aboard the diving boat the Conception early Monday because they were stationed on the deck rather than below it, officials said.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Tuesday there is no indication that any of the people sleeping in the cabins were able to make it out of the fire onto a higher deck. All appear to have been trapped and are now feared dead.

“There was a stairwell to get down the main entry way up and down and there was an escape hatch and it would appear as though both of those were blocked by fire,” he said.

Brown said the crew members who survived were likely assigned to sleep on the deck. They were able to jump off the Conception when the fire hit. A cause for the blaze has not been established.

Santa Barbara County authorities plan to formally interview crew members Tuesday.

As of Tuesday morning, the remains of 20 people — 11 female and 9 male — had been found. Fourteen people are still missing.

(See related story: Victims were part of a tight-knit community)

Authorities said those below deck were likely sleeping when the fire hit and could not get out.

“Most everybody was asleep,” said Brown, noting the combination of remote location, rapidly spreading fire and the victims’ vulnerable position on the boat. “You couldn’t ask for a worse situation.”

Soon after the fire broke out, surviving crew members woke Shirley Hansen as they pounded frantically on the side of her nearby fishing boat, the Grape Escape. They had paddled over in a dinghy, some of them injured.

Two crew members jumped back into the dinghy in hopes of rescuing others. “But they came back and there was no one that they found,” Hansen said.

One crewman said his girlfriend was trapped aboard. Another said the Conception had celebrated the birthdays of three passengers — including that of a 17-year-old girl aboard with her parents — just hours before.

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