'Most horrific incident:' Man recalls responding to Conception boat fire on 1-year anniversary

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (KABC) -- Words didn't seem to do justice in explaining the emotions in Santa Barbara where a plaque was unveiled Wednesday morning to honor all 34 victims lost onboard the Conception one year ago.

In a new interview, Eyewitness News spoke with one of the first responders, a civilian woken up in the middle of the night who raced to the scene to help.

"Not a day goes by that I probably don't have something that reminds me of it, that I think about it still, and it's been a year now," said Paul Amaral, owner of TowBoatUS Ventura.

Amaral has owned his tow boat company in Ventura for 17 years, but nothing prepared him for what he witnessed Sept. 2, 2019.

"In this case, listening to the radio traffic and knowing people were trapped inside of a burning boat, I threw caution to the wind," said Amaral.

Speeding in dense fog at nearly 50 miles per hour to Santa Cruz Island, he arrived to California's worst maritime disaster in modern history.

Conception boat fire: NTSB schedules hearing to review final report on blaze that killed 34 off Santa Barbara Coast
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The National Transportation Safety Board announced it will hold an Oct. 20 meeting on the agency's investigation of the fire aboard a dive boat off the coast of Santa Barbara that killed 34 people.



Thirty-four people were killed when the Conception dive boat burst into flames.

"Absolutely the most horrific incident," said Amaral.

With the smallest boat responding to the scene, Amaral was able to move in, successfully hooking and towing the burning vessel closer to fire boats, helping them to put out the flames.

It wasn't easy, and almost all hope was lost.

"We knew there couldn't be any survivors at that point, but looking for bodies," he said.

Upon sunrise, Amaral, searching the debris field, was the first to find a victim.

"And then in our search, we found three more. Ultimately, we recovered four at that time."

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When the Conception dive boat burned and sank off the coast of Santa Cruz Island last September, it took 34 lives with it. It is the deadliest maritime disaster in California in more than 150 years.



For his efforts, Amaral received a public service award from the U.S. Coast Guard, the second highest given to a civilian.

It's appreciated, but his perspective is different.

"I was out there doing a job. I didn't lose any loved ones. Why are you showing concern for me?"

His heart weighs heavy for everyone else who lost so much more.

"The pain the families must feel, what they are going through, the friends. It's horrific. You can't forget that."

One aspect of that made the experience incredibly surreal for Amaral. He had previously completed a 3-day dive with the same company, Truth Aquatics. He knew their operation well. And despite the possibility of lawsuits or criminal charges, it is his opinion that the owner has an excellent reputation, and did everything that they needed to do safety-wise.

Criminal charges loom amid 1-year anniversary of Conception boat fire that killed 34 off Santa Barbara coast
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Court documents say criminal charges are imminent in the investigation of the fire that killed 34 people aboard the scuba boat Conception last year off the coast of Santa Barbara.

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