SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Bob Hansen, a retired engineer, and boat owner got the shock of his life when he awoke to pounding on the side of his boat early Monday morning.
He quickly realized there were five men who had jumped ship and needed to be rescued. Although Hansen had driven his 60-foot fishing boat, 'The Grape Escape,"' from the Atlantic to the Pacific, nothing he'd encountered at sea before had prepared him for this.
It was 3:30 a.m. and five nearly naked crew members who'd narrowly escaped a catastrophe aboard 'The Conception' had made it to Hansen's boat.
"It's still shocking, I'm still realizing what went on. I can still vividly visualize the boat on fire," Hansen said. "It had several portholes and I could see flames through those portholes."
Hansen helped the crew-members out of the water and aboard his boat, and then called for help.
"I asked the Coast Guard what they want me to do. I thought, I'm going to listen. That's what they do," said Hansen.
Hansen's wife snapped photos of the Coast Guard crewmen who responded to the call. But nothing captured the agony of the crew who survived because they were on deck, but left 34 passengers below deck on the burning boat.
"Oh year one of them said his girlfriend was on-board, down there," Hansen said.
The ship's crew, including the captain, told Hansen they had no idea how the fire started. They tried to reach the passengers, but it was too late.
One crew member had a broken leg. They also told Hansen that one of the passengers trapped below deck was a 17-year-old girl who'd been celebrating her birthday with her parents.
"They opened the door to the galley and it was completely aflame and the ceiling tiles were coming off already," said Hansen.
But Hansen can't help but think that this is a tragedy that could possibly have been prevented by a watchman or an alarm.
"I wish I could have done more," he said.
With the bodies of 20 of the 34 victims now recovered, efforts are still underway to retrieve the remaining 14.
It's likely that the fire aboard the Conception is now the worst American maritime disaster of the 21st century.