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Nearly 70 divers working to recover last victim and Conception vessel

Posted at 10:48 PM, Sep 05, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-06 01:49:20-04

Divers are working hard to recover the last victim and evidence of the Conception boat fire.

The National Transportation Safety Board is hoping to recover the vessel in one piece, but strong winds could delay these search efforts.

This week divers with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office are relying upon their training as they try to retrieve the 34th victim and the Conception from the waters off the shore of Santa Cruz Island.

"The divers are experienced at looking for victims of drownings or other circumstances," said Lieutenant Brian Olmstead of the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Office. "They also might see an item that might be of interest and they'll bring it up so investigators can look at it."

Lt. Olmstead used to be a diver on the team and says there are a number of underwater obstacles like low visibility and falling objects.

"Divers will have to be careful if they are looking around or inside of it for other debris, sharp objects, unstable objects," said Lt. Olmstead.

He says at times, divers are swimming in 10-20 feet visibility.

The NTSB says they are also focused on keeping the vessel intact, but winds could delay recovery efforts.

"That might make it somewhat difficult to raise the vessel, we don't want to create safety issues for the divers and certainly, we want to make sure people on the barges are safe," said Jennifer Homendy, NTSB board member.

Nearly 70 divers from multiple agencies are canvassing from the surface to 70 feet underwater.

Lt. Olmstead said it is rare to have this many agencies and divers assisting a search rescue such as this.

"The scale of this incident is so big that obviously it would overtax most agencies which it has for the agencies within the county which is why we have reached so far out to assist us in fighting the fire, to the recovery to the investigation," said Lt. Olmstead."

The hope to bring some closure to grieving families.

"They are amazing human beings that go out at the drop of a hat," said Sargent Garrett Te Slaa, Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Dive Team. "They go out to the type of conditions no recreational diver would want to go out to. This is not a dive that any diver wants to be a part of."

"Having been on the dive team and having done many call outs, the divers are really committed to trying to find the victims," said Lt. Olmstead.

Divers are now assessing the accident site, figuring out what's needed to recover the vessel.

They're working on a plan to do that, but the NTSB says it will need approval from a number of agencies.

As they look into safety regulations of the Conception, the NTSB says it is also looking into existing laws to see if anything needs to change in order to prevent something like this from happening again.

The NTSB and divers will be on scene for the next few days.

Authorities say they will exhaust all options to find the 34th victim.

A preliminary report is expected to be released 10 days from the fire.