20 bodies recovered after California dive boat disaster

A man places flowers at a memorial wall near the Truth Aquatics moorings, where the Conception, which burned and sank off the Santa Cruz Islands, was based in Santa Barbara, California. (AFP)
Updated 03 September 2019

20 bodies recovered after California dive boat disaster

  • The remains of 11 women and nine men have been transferred to coroner offices following the disaster
  • Five crew members escaped by jumping off the vessel and taking refuge on an inflatable boat

SANTA BARBARA, California: Search operations for survivors of a scuba diving boat disaster off the California coast were suspended Tuesday after divers recovered 20 bodies and spotted another four to six trapped in underwater wreckage.
The remains of 11 women and nine men have been transferred to coroner offices following the disaster on Monday, when the 75-foot (23-meter) Conception caught fire and sank with passengers trapped below deck by the roaring blaze.
“Today we will begin the process of mapping DNA profiles of the 20 victims that we have recovered so far, so that they can be compared with family samples,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told a news conference.
The boat had been on a diving excursion around Santa Cruz Island, just west of Santa Barbara in southern California, when disaster struck early Monday.
Five crew members were awake and jumped into the water when flames burst out around 3:15 am. They were rescued by a nearby pleasure craft.
A total of 39 were on board, officials said, leaving 14 yet to be recovered and presumed dead.
Both a stairwell and an escape hatch leading down to the lower deck where passengers were sleeping appeared to have been blocked by the inferno, Brown said.
On Tuesday, emergency officials will attempt to stabilize the boat so that divers can safely enter it and retrieve remaining victims.
A debris field around half a mile in size will be mapped and searched for additional victims and evidence of what caused the fire.
Mourners gathering at the Santa Barbara docks hung white, red and yellow flowers and wrote messages of condolences on items affixed to a metal fence by the waterfront.
One, written on a pair of blue diving fins, said: “We love you Conception.”
The search operation saw three helicopter crews and boats scour a region covering 160 miles for just under 24 hours, but find no signs of survivors, said Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester.
“It is never an easy decision to suspend search efforts,” she said. “We know this is a very difficult time for family and friends of the victims.”
The operation will now enter a recovery and investigation phase “to try and determine why this incident occurred,” she added.
Mark Hartwig, county fire chief, said authorities were “expending all necessary means to find out the cause and origin of the fire.”
Bob Hansen, a sailor on board the nearby pleasure boat that rescued the crew members, told the Los Angeles Times he heard “explosions going off every couple of minutes,” which may have been caused by dive tanks exploding.
“It made me feel so helpless,” he said.
Rochester, the coast guard captain, said earlier that all the passengers were believed to have been sleeping when the fire broke out.
US news outlets released audio of a distress call in which a crew member on the boat yells, “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” and “I can’t breathe!“
The Truth Aquatics website said the Conception, listed as having bunks for up to 46 people, had been scheduled to return Monday from a three-day trip after visiting several diving spots around Santa Cruz Island.
It was just 20 yards (meters) off the island’s northern shore when disaster struck.
The area is popular for a variety of water and outdoor sports.


Over 200,000 vote in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy primaries

Updated 12 July 2020

Over 200,000 vote in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy primaries

  • Exercise being held two weeks after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the semi-autonomous territory

HONG KONG: Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers turned up over the weekend to vote in an unofficial two-day primary election held by the city’s pro-democracy camp as it gears up to field candidates for an upcoming legislative poll.
The exercise is being held two weeks after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the semi-autonomous territory in a move widely seen as chipping away at the “one country, two systems” framework under which Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997. It was passed in response to last year’s massive protests calling for greater democracy and more police accountability.
Throngs of people lined up at polling booths in the summer heat to cast their vote despite a warning by Hong Kong’s constitutional affairs minister, Eric Tsang last week that the primaries could be in breach of the new national security law, because it outlaws interference and disruption of duties by the local government.
Organizers have dismissed the comments, saying they just want to hold the government accountable by gaining a majority in the legislature.
The legislation prohibits what Beijing views as secessionist, subversive or terrorist activities or as foreign intervention in Hong Kong affairs. Under the law, police now have sweeping powers to conduct searches without warrants and order Internet service providers and platforms to remove messages deemed to be in violation of the legislation.
On Friday, police raided the office of the Public Opinion Research Institute, a co-organizer of the primary elections. The computer system was suspected of being hacked, causing a data leak, police said in a statement, and an investigation is ongoing.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp, which includes multiple parties, is attempting to join forces and use the primaries as a guide to field the best candidates in the official legislative election in September. Its goal is to win a majority in the legislature, which is typically skewed toward the pro-Beijing camp.
To hold the primary elections, pro-democracy activists had raised money via crowd funding. They pledged to veto the government’s budget if they clinch a majority in the legislature. Under the Basic Law, under which Hong Kong is governed, city leader Carrie Lam must resign if an important bill such as the budget is vetoed twice.
On Saturday alone, nearly 230,000 people voted at polling booths set up across the city, exceeding organizers’ estimates of a 170,000 turnout over the weekend.