TowBoatUS Ventura captain Paul Amaral has a hard time describing the way he felt when he responded to mayday calls saying that the 75-foot charter dive boat carrying 39 people off the coast of Southern California was engulfed in flames.
Amaral, a TowBoatUS operator in Ventura, was sleeping at 3:35 a.m. on Sept. 2 when he got a call from dispatcher Adam Lowery at the regional BoatUS Dispatch Center, a 24-hour service that monitors all the radios and notifies local TowBoatUS operators of boaters in need of assistance.
As soon has he heard there were 30-something people aboard the charter dive boat, Conception, adrenaline took over.
“I jumped out of bed, put on clothes, tore to the office and grabbed my grapnel and my go-fast boat,” said Amaral. “Having responded to multiple boat fires, I know what it means to be fully engulfed. A fire on a boat that is fully engulfed is horrific. It’s unsurvivable.”
His boat can go 50 knots, but Amaral kept it at 40 because it was dark and conditions weren’t ideal. He was the third boat to arrive at the scene, joining a U.S. Coast Guard boat and a Ventura County firefighting boat that was able to control the fire during the initial stages.
Here’s a few seconds of footage Amaral caught upon his initial arrival:
Though initial word had been that only five crew members of the scuba diving boat’s 39 people had escaped, Amaral did a quick coastline search to see if additional people had been able to find a way off. He saw no evidence of survivors — he didn’t yet know that the five crew members who had been able to escape from the top deck had been rescued by a good samaritan and were on their way back to land — so he tried to help firefighters in their battle.
The anchor rope burned, and the vessel began drifting toward Santa Cruz island, positioning the Conception in such shallow water firefighters couldn’t get close enough to reach the flames with water and foam.
“When they couldn’t access it, I volunteered to go in and get it out in deeper water,” said Amaral. “The flames had reignited, so it was getting higher, but I had some room to work and was able to get next to the boat, throw my grapnel on, and fortunately it grabbed onto something.”
Amaral kept the boat in deep enough water to allow firefighters to combat the blaze, but close enough to land to make recovery easier in case the boat sank.
“It was risky, and there had been talk that some explosions had taken place, so I was really concerned about that as well,” said Amaral, who was solo on his vessel. “But at that point, you really don’t think about it. You know there’s 30-something souls on that boat. I wasn’t concerned about damage to my boat, that wasn’t on my mind. My only concern was to get that grapnel on the bow to pull the boat off to deeper water. Luckily my first attempt was successful.”
The all-wooden hull of the boat and diesel fuel made the fire volatile, he said.
“It was absolutely incredible how when, even though when I thought the flames were down, how quickly they reignited, and how hot and fast that fire was burning,” he recalled.
They worked through the night, and the boat appeared to be stable.
Once the fire seemed under control, Amaral began working making preparations to stabilize the vessel for towing it back to the mainland.
“Unfortunately, by the time we realized we were losing it, I couldn’t get it to the area on the island I wanted to get it to because it happened so fast,” said Amaral. “I was pulling as hard as I could to get it into shallow water, and it sunk out from under me. And that’s something that — you have all the what-ifs. It would’ve been so much nicer for everybody to work on if I’d been able to beach it, and I feel guilty about that.”
After it sunk, Amaral ran across a body.
“That was a whole different experience,” said Amaral. “Initially it was so hard to even make myself look at it.”
He asked Coast Guard personnel to join him on his boat, and a harbor patrolman from Santa Barbara, and the four of them went into recovery mode.
“My boat was the only one really suitable to get in close to the island where the bodies were, so everything was done from my boat,” he said. “Initially it was horrific. Then the adrenaline kicked in and you just start doing what you need to do. The thought that at least you’re bringing the remains of someone’s family back to them, you don’t think about anything else. You don’t think about the horror of that.”
Since he has returned to his job and life, there has been an outpouring of support for him, but Amaral feels like it is misplaced.
“I feel really weird because I didn’t succeed,” said Amaral. “So for somebody to want to comfort me when there are so many people horrifically suffering from the loss of their loved ones, feels unfair. I’m sure it’s survivors guilt that you hear about and read about. I was just out there doing my job. I don’t deserve sympathy.”
As a diver, Amaral understands the trauma that the crew that did escape must feel, and said he wished people would understand the impossible situation they were likely encountering. He also mentioned the dive boat Vision, a sister ship to Conception at the same dive company, Truth Aquatics, had recently rescued six from a capsizing fishing vessel in the Channel Islands days before.
Amaral hopes that people will still get to enjoy diving the Channel Islands, and pointed to a video he did with the BoatUS Foundation to help educate boaters about staying safe in the rugged terrain.
Amaral said he hopes the tragedy will help people stay safer and that it will highlight some of the work that BoatUS, TowBoatUS and the BoatUS Foundation do.
“BoatUS having the towing fleet they have allows me to provide service I do,” said Amaral. “I’m also hooked up with the fire department because I do quite a bit of voluntary search and rescue with the Coast Guard and Harbor Patrol. I’m so appreciative to be part of the network that allowed me to be here and be able to assist. It’s that teamwork, and BoatUS’s support of us that allowed me to do what I did. That’s what gets you through that horror of dealing with that."