Five family members are among those feared dead after a raging inferno tore through a diving boat off the Southern California coast.
The fire in the boat packed with scuba divers erupted shortly after 3 a.m. Monday during the last part of a three-day trip off Santa Cruz Island. All 34 people who were sleeping below deck of the Conception boat are presumed dead, and authorities have called off the search for survivors.
They include five family members from Stockton, California, who were aboard the dive boat celebrating a birthday, Dominic Selga told CNN affiliate KOVR.
Couple and 3 daughters were aboard the boat
Selga said he’s trying to come to terms with the news that his mother, Fernisa Sison, her husband, Michael Quitasol, and his three step sisters — Angela Quitasol, Evan Quitasol and Nicole Quitasol — are likely dead.
“You know deep down that it’s true, that they’ve passed on and they were in that boat and they are not going to be found,” Selga told the affiliate.
The family loved diving, and signed up for a long weekend of unlimited colorful underwater sea life exploration and the gourmet meals that come with it. The adventure was to celebrate Michael Quitasol’s birthday, he said.
“Diving is something they shared. It’s one thing that … made them happy together,” he said. Since the fire broke out, Selga added, many questions have gone through his mind.
“What were they thinking? What happened? Why did it happen? What did they wake up to? Were they awake? Did they even wake up?” he said.
Three of the family members worked for Kaiser Permanente Central Valley, which said it’s providing support to those affected by the loss.
“We are so saddened by the tragic deaths of our colleagues Fernisa Sison, Michael Quitasol and Evan Quitasol, along with all those aboard the Conception. Our sympathies are with their family and friends at this time,” said Corwin Harper, senior vice president for Kaiser Permanente Central Valley.
Divers saw more bodies in the wreckage
It’s unclear what started the fire in the 75-foot boat. There were 39 people on board — 33 passengers and six crew members, said Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester. Five crew members escaped the flames and were rescued.
A total of 20 bodies have been recovered — 11 women and nine men, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.
The search and rescue operation for the missing people was suspended, and it’s now a recovery mission, Rochester said.
“It is never an easy decision to suspend search efforts,” Rochester said. “We know that this is a very difficult time for families and friends of the victims.”
Crews have searched a 160-mile area for close to 24 hours. Divers saw some bodies in the wreckage but couldn’t recover them before nightfall because the boat was unstable, authorities said. Crews will try to stabilize the boat so divers can enter and recover the remaining bodies.
DNA samples are being collected from family members and authorities will use rapid technology to identify the bodies burned beyond recognition.
The boat was about 20 miles off the mainland coast, near Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands National Park.