It was a quiet night in Platts Harbor, near Santa Cruz Island.
Shirley Hansen and her husband, Bob, had spent the day on the water and anchored their fishing boat Grape Escape in the cove. They cooked a calico bass Shirley had caught and went to bed.
Then, they were woken by a loud thumping noise on the side of their 60-foot vessel.
“It was horrific, the pounding,” Shirley Hansen said. “Our boat is very well made. Having that sound come through [showed] they were very in need of help.”
Outside in a dinghy were crew members from the Conception, a 75-foot commercial diving boat that had erupted in flames. The men were wet, distraught, some wearing just underwear. One man appeared to have broken his leg, Shirley Hansen said. Another had injured his ankle, she said.
By the time the dinghy arrived at the Hansens’ boat, the Conception was engulfed in flames, said Bob Hansen.
“As it was burning, there would be explosions going off every couple of minutes,” Hansen said. “It was probably some of the dive tanks exploding. It made me feel so helpless.”
The Hansens were among the first witnesses to the pre-dawn tragedy aboard the Conception, which caught fire near the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island early Monday.
Law enforcement officials arrive at Santa Barbara Harbor, waiting for a boat to the scene off Santa Cruz Island. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Olivia, left, sister of a female crew member thought to have died in the boat fire, hugs Jennifer Stafford, who placed flowers at the Santa Barbara Harbor where the Conception was based. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
A memorial is growing at Santa Barbara Harbor, where the dive boat Conception was based. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The Conception burns off Santa Cruz Island. (Ventura County Fire Dept.)
Search and rescue personnel remove one of over a dozen body bags in Santa Barbara Harbor after the Conception diving boat caught fire early Monday. (Patrick T. Fallon/For The Times)
After hanging a dive flag in memory of the victims, JJ Lambert, 38, who said he had dived off the Conception as a kid, is hugged by Jenna Marsala, 33, at Santa Barbara Harbor near where the Conception departed. (Patrick T. Fallon/For The Times)
Orlando Aldano places candles, one for each person aboard the Conception, at a makeshift memorial at Sea Landing in the Santa Barbara Harbor. (Patrick T. Fallon/For The Times)
At Santa Barbara Harbor, James Miranda kneels in prayer. “It’s a very sad moment for California,” he said. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)
Rescuers and law enforcement, on a boat docked at Santa Barbara Harbor, move a body that was recovered after Monday’s deadly boat fire. (Daniel Dreifuss/Associated Press)
The body of a victim is moved at Santa Barbara Harbor. (Daniel Dreifuss/Associated Press)
U.S. Coast Guard searches for victims of the dive boat fire off Santa Cruz Island on Monday afternoon. (Patrick T. Fallon/For The Times)
Family members of those aboard the dive boat arrive in Oxnard. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)
James Kohl waits at the gate of the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Oxnard for news of his brother Mike Kohl, 58, a cook on the Conception. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)
Dive boat captain Jerry Boylan is brought back to U.S. Coast Guard headquarters at Channel Islands Harbor on Monday in Oxnard. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)
Capt. Monica Rochester addresses the media on the boat fire during a news conference Monday morning at the Coast Guard station in Oxnard. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)
Firefighters arrive back at the U.S. Coast Guard Station after battling the fire. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)
A victim from a dive boat that caught fire off the Ventura County coast early Monday morning is taken to an ambulance in Oxnard. (OnScene.TV)
The captain of the Grape Escape boat, which rescued victims of a boat fire off the Channel Islands, looks on near the U.S. Coast Guard Station Channel Islands in Oxnard on Monday. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters battle a blaze on a dive boat near Santa Cruz Island. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department)
A diving boat fire near Santa Cruz Island off the Ventura County coast. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department)
Conception, the boat that caught fire off Ventura County. (Truth Aquatics)
Many aboard were thought to be sleeping below deck when the fire broke out. As of early Tuesday, authorities said at least 15 people had been confirmed dead and others were still missing.
One of the five crew members who escaped to the Hansens’ boat was the ship’s captain, Shirley Hansen said. She said he gave his name as Jerry. (Separately, a photographer told The Times that Jerry Boylan was usually the captain of the Conception.)
The sudden arrival of the crew members was surprising to the Hansens not only because of the early hour, about 3:30 a.m., but also because the Madera couple thought they were alone in the cove.
Shirley Hansen said she and her husband gave the crew members blankets and clothes. Some of the men were crying, one telling them that his girlfriend was still below deck on the Conception.
Another man described how the crew had celebrated three passengers’ birthdays hours earlier, including that of a 17-year-old girl who was on the diving trip with her parents.
She said two of the crew members got back in the dinghy to see if anyone had jumped overboard.
“But they came back and there was no one that they found,” she said.
Hansen said there was so much smoke from the fire that she had an asthma attack and had to use her inhaler.
“You could see the fire from the windows from our boat,” she said. “It wasn’t far.”
The Hansens brought the most injured crew member ashore, where he was put into an ambulance, she said. The man who identified himself as the captain stayed behind with the Coast Guard, Hansen said.
Hansen said she and her husband used their boat to catch tuna, marlin and sailfish. They recently brought the vessel up to Oxnard.
She described feeling helpless as she and her husband tried to aid the crew members and watched the fireball across the water.
“There are a lot of questions to be answered,” she said.
“We don’t feel like good Samaritans,” she added. “We just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”