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Five members of same family feared dead in California dive boat tragedy

STOCKTON, Calif. – Five members of the same family are among the 34 people feared dead after a dive boat caught fire and sank off Santa Cruz Island early Monday.

Dominic Selga said his mother, Fernisa Sison; his stepfather, Michael Quitasol; and three of his four stepsisters – Evan, Nicole and Angela Quitasol – were on board the Conception.

"Personally, I’ve been holding onto that 1% despite everything that is against it and I already know in my heart that it’s not there but ... " Selga told KTXL.

Selga and his sister, Nisa Shinagawa, said their whole family had become scuba certified, often taking family scuba trips together because their stepdad Mike had always enjoyed the ocean.

“It was always a dream of Michael’s to get back into scuba diving and when him and my mom got together they wanted to start doing more things in their lives for themselves,” Shinagawa said.

They said every year Mike and Fernisa went on the Conception out to the Channel Islands National Park.

“He’s been on that boat multiple times,” Selga said. “We’ve been on that boat.”

Often, their kids would join them.

“(It was) something that brought our family in a little bit closer being a mixed family," Selga said.

For years, Mike and Fernisa worked as nurses at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Stockton. But recently, the couple began working for Kaiser hospitals in Stockton, Modesto and Manteca.

Mike’s daughter Evan had followed in their footsteps, working at St. Joseph’s.

While Nicole lived in San Diego, her sister Angela returned to Sierra Middle School in Stockton, where she was once a student, teaching science for the past four years according to the district.

“I would never think that that would happen ... like on a boat that was so well known,” Selga said.

Mike is survived by a fourth daughter who lives in San Diego. Fernisa has two young grandchildren who Selga said still don’t know what had.

“They’re 5 and 3 (years old) and every day they ask for their grandma and grandpa,” he said. “And that’s the thing that I fear the most is just telling them. I don’t even know what to tell them.”

What happened

The 34 people feared dead in a California dive boat fire likely got trapped when the roaring blaze blocked their escape routes and confined them to the lower sleeping deck, authorities said.

Thirty-three bodies have been recovered after the fire consumed the 75-foot dive boat Conception off the Southern California coast early on Labor Day, leaving one presumed body yet to be found, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's joint information center said Wednesday.

Authorities have said 33 passengers and a crew member were believed to be in the below-deck bunkroom when the fire broke out shortly after 3 a.m. (6 a.m. ET) Monday, and that those 34 did not survive.

Five crew members who were elsewhere on the vessel -- including the captain -- jumped off the fully engulfed boat and survived, the Coast Guard has said.

Passengers were not locked in the sleeping deck, but they were unable to flee the burning boat, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Tuesday.

"There was a stairwell to get down the main entryway, up and down, and there was an escape hatch. And it would appear as though both of those were blocked by fire," he added.

The boat was about 20 miles off the mainland coast, near Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands National Park.

Rapid DNA technology to be used to ID victims

Authorities will use rapid DNA technology to identify those whose bodies were burned beyond recognition, Brown said. DNA samples are being collected from family members.

The technology can simultaneously analyze five DNA samples in 90 minutes, and was used to quickly identify victims of the devastating Camp Fire in Northern California last year, federal authorities said. It can take weeks to get results in a traditional forensic lab.

The blaze swallowed most of the boat within minutes. Ventura County firefighters reached the boat within 15 minutes, but by then, it was engulfed in flames.

Firefighters struggled to extinguish the fire because the flames kept flaring back up, likely because of the fuel on board, the Coast Guard said.

The cause of the fire is under investigation

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the fire. Adam Tucker, the NTSB investigator in charge, said the Conception was not required to have a black box on board and was not voluntarily fitted with a black box.

A mayday call revealed the confusion between a Coast Guard dispatcher and the Conception's captain. But only the dispatcher's words could be heard.

The captain apparently reports a fire and provides a location. The dispatcher is heard saying, "And there's 33 people on board the vessel that's on fire, they can't get off? ... Roger, are they locked inside the boat? ... Roger, can you get back on board and unlock the boat, unlock the door so they can get off? ... Roger, you don't have any firefighting gear at all? No fire extinguishers or anything?"

At one point, the caller says, "I can't breathe."

Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said there was "a lot of adrenaline, a lot of confusion" over the radio communication system. She said she believes the radio dispatcher "was trying to ask for information."

She said "there are no locked doors in accommodation spaces" where passengers slept on the boat.

"The only privacy that you have ... are curtains," she said.

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