UPDATE: Fire Blocked Escape for 34 Divers Asleep Below Deck on Boat

KNX 1070
September 04, 2019 - 8:54 am
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(KNX) — The Coast Guard has suspended search efforts for survivors Tuesday morning.

A relative says five people from one Northern California family are missing and presumed dead after the scuba diving boat they were on burned near a Southern California island.

Thirty four people have been presumed dead in the dive boat fire that happened Monday.

Susana Rosas posted on social media Tuesday that her three daughters, their father, and stepmother were on board the Conception when it caught fire before dawn Monday morning.

Evanmichel Quitasol, a nurse and according to her mother, Susana Rosas, two of her other daughters were also aboard the dive boat -- Nicole Storm Solano Quitasol and Angela Rose Solano Quitasol -- a seventh-grade teacher at Sierra Middle School in Stockton, California.

Rosas added that her daughters were on the trip with her ex-husband, Michael Quitasol, and his current wife, Fernisa Sison, both are former St. Joseph’s Medical Center employees.

"Our hearts go out to all the families and loved ones of those on board the Conception," St. Joseph’s Medical Center said in a statement to KCRA.

According to a family friend, Michael Quitasol and Sison worked at Kaiser Permanente in Modesto. Wednesday is Michael Quitasol's birthday.

Brett Harmeling of Houston said Tuesday that his sister Kristy Finstad was among the missing and presumed dead. Harmeling thanked everyone in a post on his Facebook page for their "unconditional love and support during this incredibly tragic time."

Finstad, 41, was leading the scuba tour off Southern California when fire engulfed the dive boat early Monday with 39 people on board, including six crew members.

Finstad first put on a dive tank at age 9. She was co-owner of Worldwide Diving Adventures based in Santa Cruz.

"No final word on my sister Kristy; however, it is likely she has transitioned to be with the good Lord," he wrote.

Also below deck were students from a Northern California school, Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz. The school posted a statement on its website that said "our hearts and thoughts are with the families of the victims and those yet missing, particularly those of our students and parents on board."

School director Maria C. Reitano declined Tuesday to say how many students went on the trip, which was not sponsored by the school. The college preparatory public charter school serves grades 7-12.

At a Tuesday morning press conference, officials said an additional 16 victims were located from Monday's efforts and brought back. In total there were 20 victims who have been recovered and transported. Thus far, there were 11 females and 9 male victims.

Due to the positioning of the boat, at least four and six victims were seen in the water wreckage.

On Tuesday, efforts were underway to stabilize the boat.

Captain Monica Rochester from the US Coast Guard said,  "We have suspended the search efforts."

Dive teams were in the water off Santa Cruz Island searching for more victims Tuesday morning before the conference.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll told the Associated Press Tuesday that at least 25 people have died and nine others are still missing after the dive boat caught fire off the Southern California coast Monday.

The Sheriff's Office and County of Santa Barbara is transitioning to take the lead on the Conception Boat incident.

A makeshift memorial has been set up at the harbor Tuesday morning.

Five crew members who jumped off the boat were rescued, and Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll told The Associated Press the Coast Guard was searching for others who may have been able to escape the same way.

There is the family assistance center set up at Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara for those whose loved ones were on the dive boat.

Congresswoman Julia Brownley was just briefed Monday by the Coast Guard in Oxnard on the deadly boating accident. She said she’s hoping for more survivors, but has no indication there are any.

Initially it was believed that 34 people were dead. Two of the crew suffered minor injuries, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney.

Capt. Brian McGrath of the Ventura County Fire Department confirmed some deaths to The Associated Press but said he could not give an exact number.

"Right now they're conducting shoreline searches for any available survivors," Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester told reporters at a brief news conference at Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard.

"The crew was actually already awake and on the bridge and they jumped off," she said, adding they were rescued by a good Samaritan vessel called The Grape Escape.

Asked if the crew tried to help others aboard, Rochester said, "I don't have any additional information."

A woman who came to the harbor said, "My son was on that boat." She was led away by a Ventura County firefighter.

Rochester said the 75-foot (20-meter) commercial scuba diving vessel was about 20 yards (18 meters) off the coast of Santa Cruz Island when the fire ignited around 3 a.m.

The dive boat Conception was on the final day of a Labor Day weekend cruise to the Channel Islands when the fire erupted.

"At 3:15 this morning the Coast Guard overheard a mayday call. The call was garbled, it was not that clear, but we were able to get some information out of it to send vessels on scene," Barney said.

The Conception was operated by Worldwide Diving Adventures, a respected Santa Barbara-based company that says on its website it has been taking divers on such expeditions since 1972.

The Conception had departed at 4 a.m. Saturday with plans to return at 5 p.m. Monday.

It was outfitted with dozens of small berths for people to sleep in overnight.

The trip promised multiple opportunities to see colorful coral and a variety of marine life.

Associated Press contributed to this story.