Five family members are among those feared dead after a raging inferno tore through a diving boat off the Southern California coast.
The fire in the boat packed with scuba divers erupted shortly after 3 a.m. Monday during the last part of a three-day trip off Santa Cruz Island. Thirty-four people who were believed to be in a lower sleeping deck died, and 33 of the bodies have been recovered, authorities said.
The dead are believed to include five family members from Stockton, California, who were aboard the dive boat celebrating a birthday, relatives Dominic Selga and Nisa Shinagawa told CNN.
Couple and 3 daughters were aboard the boat
Selga and Shinagawa are trying to come to terms with the news that their mother, Fernisa Sison, their stepfather, Michael Quitasol, and their three stepsisters – Angela Quitasol, Evan Quitasol and Nicole Quitasol – are likely dead.
Wednesday would have been Michael Quitasol’s birthday, and the trip – a long weekend of unlimited colorful underwater sea life exploration and the gourmet meals that come with it – was meant to celebrate that, Shinagawa said.
The family has taken this kind of trip before. Shinagawa said she’d been on this boat, the Conception, “a number of times” – but she wasn’t on this trip.
“We, as a family, would do this trip annually, either around (Michael’s) birthday, or my mom’s birthday, which is in October, or around New Year’s,” Shinagawa told CNN’s “New Day” on Wednesday.
“So depending on which siblings could make it, we’d each try to go on this trip with our parents. Our aunt would come when she was alive, and different family members, because we all got diving certified once our parents got together,” Shinagawa said.
In a separate interview with CNN affiliate KOVR, Selga said diving was an interest that his mother and stepfather shared.
“It’s one thing that … made them happy together,” he said.
Since the fire broke out, Selga said, many questions have gone through his mind.
“What were they thinking? What happened? Why did it happen? What did they wake up to? Were they awake? Did they even wake up?” he said to KOVR.
Three of the family members worked for Kaiser Permanente Central Valley, which said it’s providing support to those affected by the loss.
“We are so saddened by the tragic deaths of our colleagues Fernisa Sison, Michael Quitasol and Evan Quitasol, along with all those aboard the Conception. Our sympathies are with their family and friends at this time,” said Corwin Harper, senior vice president for Kaiser Permanente Central Valley.
Divers saw more bodies in the wreckage
It’s unclear what started the fire in the 75-foot boat. There were 39 people on board – 33 passengers and six crew members, said Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester. Five crew members escaped the flames and were rescued.
Thirty-three people had signed up to spend the Labor day weekend scuba diving and exploring colorful underwater sea life. Now their families are facing a long, agonizing wait for answers after the ship caught fire off Santa Cruz Island on the last part of the three-day trip.
DNA samples are being collected from family members and authorities will use rapid technology to identify the bodies burned beyond recognition.
The boat was about 20 miles off the mainland coast, near Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands National Park.
CNN’s Joe Sutton, Theresa Waldrop, Holly Yan and Darran Simon contributed to this report.