A woman places flowers at a makeshift memorial

A woman places flowers at a makeshift memorial Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019, near Truth Aquatics as the search continues for those missing in a pre-dawn fire that sank a commercial diving boat near Santa Barbara, Calif., on Monday, Sept. 2, 2019.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — The Conception was an institution here in Santa Barbara’s small everyone-knows-everyone harbor and in the broader community beyond. Over generations, it carried thousands of locals on fishing trips and to SCUBA-certification dives at the wild Channel Islands, where it now lies perilously on the sea bottom with an unknown number of bodies in its hold.

The pre-dawn fire that burned and sunk the boat killed 34 people — all 33 guests who had chartered the Conception for the long holiday weekend and one member of its crew. The news conjured up wistful, what-if memories throughout the city, revealed in flurries of text messages to friends, one of which began, “Horrific tragedy, and my girls have slept in those bunks at some point in the last five years.”

Santa Barbara celebrity resident Rob Lowe noted on Twitter that he had been on the Conception many times

“Everyone in my circle has a story about it,” said Grant Lepper, a marketing executive who did a “check-up dive” off the Conception a few years ago at Anacapa Island. “It was a great boat, great crew.”

Now the community is trying to understand what happened.

Recovering bodies

Rescue workers searched through Monday night in the dark waters off the California coast but have given up hope of finding any additional survivors. All 34 people who were unaccounted for are now presumed dead, and investigators are focusing on the cause of the blaze and the response of the five surviving crew members.

In all, emergency crews have recovered 20 bodies from the site around the Conception, the 75-foot boat that sank off the northern coast of Santa Cruz Island after catching fire at about 3:15 a.m.

Monday. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Tuesday the majority of those on board for the three-day dive trip were from San Jose and Santa Cruz, but authorities have not yet publicly identified the victims.

Eleven of the bodies, delivered by rescue crews to an overwhelmed county coroner’s office here, are female. The other nine have been identified as male. Divers have located as many as six more in the boat’s wreckage, which is scattered along a half-mile of ocean bottom in waters dipping to 65 feet, but have not yet recovered them.

The official death toll is now 26, making it one of the deadliest sea disasters in recent history. It is also the second tragedy involving mass fatalities in as many years here in this southern California community, a place not accustomed to drama. Nearly two dozen people died in the January 2018 mudslides that followed the largest wildfire in county history.

The Coast Guard on Tuesday announced that it has called off further operations to find survivors, meaning the final toll likely will be all 34 people who were believed to have gone down with the Conception. While divers work Tuesday to make the wreckage safe to extract more bodies, medical examiners will begin taking DNA samples from the relatives of victims.

Identifying victims

Using a method pioneered last year to identify scores of badly burned bodies recovered from the Paradise fire, medical examiners will begin matching the Conception victims to names on the manifest, who officials said appeared to range in age from 17 years old to some in their 60s.

“There are some family, friends and loved ones who will never forget today,” said Suzanne Grimmesey, director of Santa Barbara County’s Department of Behavioral Wellness. “They will never forget the change from ‘search and rescue’ to ‘search and recovery.’ “

The Conception and its sister boats, the Truth and the Vision, have been moored on the edge of the harbor, on the far side of the rows of slips from the tourist-oriented restaurants. The boats are known among locals who work at sea as a kind of mid-career stepping stone between entry-level crew work and jobs on major commercial fishing vessels. Many here have worked on the Conception before moving up to larger boats.

The Conception’s only survivors are five crew members, including its well-regarded captain, Jerry Boylan. All of them slept on the topmost of boat’s three levels, where the crew has its berths near the bridge. A sixth crew member was sleeping with the rest of the passengers in quarters below deck and is presumed dead.

The five got to a nearby boat, the Grape Escape, using the Conception’s tender. There they made a second mayday call to the Coast Guard. But officials said Tuesday that it appears that none of the 33 guests made it out of the lowest level of the boat where the bunks are.

The Conception has a good safety record, and Coast Guard officials reiterated Tuesday that its onboard firefighting equipment, which is required by law, passed its most recent inspection. There also has been some confusion arising from the transcripts of the pair of mayday calls, which Brown, the sheriff, said have been “conflated” in reporting.

One passage suggests that the doors to the lower decks were locked. But Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester, the commanding officer of the Long Beach-Los Angeles sector, said there are no doors on the boat and only curtains separate the bunks.

From the accounts given to rescue workers by the crew — who are scheduled to be interviewed formally Tuesday as part of the investigation — the fire broke out rapidly and burned very hot. The single stairwell and escape hatch might have been blocked by flames.

“That appears to be exactly what happened,” Brown told reporters. “There is no indication at this point that there was an explosion.”

Brown said the recovery work being carried out off Santa Cruz is “taxing and dangerous,” an operation that has received support from law enforcement agencies around the state.

Additional staff members from the Los Angeles and Sacramento coroner’s offices also have arrived to help with the DNA collection and identification, which officials warned will be time-consuming even with the new techniques.

Family members from 30 of the 34 presumed victims have been in touch with county officials, who said Tuesday that they would be carrying out mouth swabs to collect DNA in the days ahead. Brown said the recovered bodies showed signs of “extreme thermal damage.”

Nick Ise lives in the harbor on his 30-foot sailboat called Isn’t It. He has taken dive trips on the Conception and known a handful of people who worked aboard. He calls the boat and its crew “as good as it gets.”

The tragedy, Ise said, is “the biggest thing that’s happened to the harbor.” He worries now about the company’s future.

“What happens next is up to the owner,” said Ise, a website developer. “I wouldn’t want them to be replaced.”