CORONA DEL MAR, Calif. – It was a mayday call the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard's Narwhal will never forget. Thirty four lives were in jeopardy when a massive fire devoured the Conception dive boat early Labor Day morning.
The Narwhal was the first USCG cutter to arrive on scene. Commanding Officer Caroline Miller leads the 12-person crew and opened up about how seeing the tragedy up close has stayed with her.
RELATED l Inside "The Conception" Dive Boat
“This touches home because the ship was not much smaller than us. It’s definitely made me more cognizant of relationships with people and prioritizing what’s important," Miller said.
Miller's team spent days off the coast of Santa Cruz Island assisting with search and recovery efforts. They were tasked with maintaining a safety zone around the investigation and offering support to first responders. They also leaned on one another for support.
“By that point we assisted with recovering some of the bodies. We are a tight-night crew and we were making sure everyone was okay regardless of rank," Miller said.
For Petty Officer Second Class Corey Weber, who is an 11-year veteran of the service and was on watch the night of the call, the biggest ongoing worry has been the newer and younger members of the team.
“You can go your entire career and never see something like this so talking to them, looking out for them and making sure what they’re feeling is normal," Weber said.
And even though weeks have passed since the disaster, the crew says members from the Coast Guard’s stress management team continue to check in with them.
“Even this past week they still had people coming down to assist to make sure people are doing okay when it comes to this massive stressful event," Miller said.
When the team is underway, they spend two to three days together on the water, sometimes in extremely remote locations. They have helped with everything from boat fires to drug smuggling seizures.
However, they say nothing compares to the heartbreak they feel for the families of the lives lost on the Conception.
“I know this is a tragic event that will impact them for the rest of their lives. My heart goes out to them," Miller said.
It is a tragedy that has made them reflect and grow closer together as a team, which is now even more prepared to handle any challenge that comes on the horizon.