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34 souls gone to the deep

Madera mariners witness nightmare boating tragedy from their 60-foot yacht

At about 3 a.m. Monday, Maderans Bob and Shirley Hansen were peacefully asleep on their 60-foot sport-fishing Hattares yacht, anchored north of Santa Cruz Island, off Santa Barbara, about 25 miles from shore.

Then came a pounding on the side of the boat.

Bob opened the big yacht’s hatch and was amazed at what he saw and heard.

“Here were five guys in a dinghy, and they were calling for help.

“I looked out, and their boat was all in flames. The flames must have been 30 feet high.”

“We’re a dive boat and we have 34 souls aboard,” one of the men in the dinghy, said.

Bob was stunned — overwhelmed by the sight — a nightmare any mariner would dread.

“As soon as I walked out the door, I said, ‘I don’t feel I know what I can do’.”

One of the men in the dinghy was the captain of the vessel that was on fire. He said he had attempted to call the Coast Guard, but the “helm” or wheelhouse of his boat, the 70-foot Conception, outfitted for diving instruction, was filled with smoke.

“He was coughing,” Bob said. “He had smoke inhalation.”

He said the five crew members had jumped from the wheelhouse. One apparently hit the deck on his way down, and broke his leg.

Bob said he called the Coast Guard from his own vessel, and the Coast Guard said to stay put.

“Nobody showed up for an hour,” Bob said.

“That wasn’t the Coast Guard’s fault,” Bob said. “We were 25 miles off shore. It was an hour before anybody got to us.

“During that time, there were small explosions going off,” Bob said. “We figured the dive tanks were going off. It just lit up the entire area.”

He said the area where he and Shirley were moored was popular with divers. The Conception, a wooden diving vessel, was a common sight.

“The boat that burned had been near us that morning.”

Ed and Shirley “were a pretty good team. She took care of two survivors, including the guy with the broken leg. They were in pretty bad shape. She was consoling them.

“She gave them clean shirts and pants.”

Ed said that if the accident had occurred earlier, “I could have put every person on that boat in our boat.”

As it happened, though, 34 people are believed to have perished.

The Hansen’s yacht, The Grape Escape, remained moored in Oxnard after they returned Wednesday to Madera, where journalists from throughout the country began calling them, leaving voice mails and sending texts.

“This isn’t my business,” Bob said.

His business is farming. He grows almonds, pistachios and grapes in south Madera County, work which enables the Hansens to enjoy their passion of sport fishing.

According to the Los Angeles Web site LAist, The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the fire and plans to release a preliminary report within 10 days. The final report usually takes between 12 and 24 months. The Coast Guard also conducts its own investigation.

Wednesday was the NTSB’s first full day on scene and during a Wednesday afternoon press conference, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said it was an “extremely productive day.”

NTSB investigators already had interviewed the vessel owner and operator, the 2nd galley, the 2nd captain, a deckhand and the vessel’s captain. Homendy said these “were very cooperative, lengthy, multi-hour, detailed interviews.”

Alcohol testing was conducted on four of the five surviving crew members and the alcohol results were all negative. (One person could not be alcohol tested because they were being taken to the hospital.) Drug testing was done on all five survivors and those results are still pending.

They are scheduling more interviews for tomorrow and future days including with the 1st galley, the owners of the good Samaritan vessels who came to the Conception’s aid, Coast Guard inspectors, first responders and current and past employees of Truth Aquatics, the firm that was leasing the boat for diving expeditions and instruction.

NTSB investigators have also asked for a variety of records, including Coast Guard recordings, 911 dispatch records, maintenance training records, licensing information, operation manuals (if they exist), information on fire protection and engineering systems and an inspection history of the vessel, among other documents.

“This is going to be a very lengthy, detailed and comprehensive investigation,” Homendy said on Wednesday.

Investigators on Wednesday went to see Vision, one of three vessels operated by Truth Aquatics which is similar to Conception.

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