A middle-of-the-night fire swept a boat carrying recreational scuba divers anchored near an island off the southern California coast early on Monday, leaving at least 25 dead and nine others missing.
Five of six crew members on the Conception escaped by jumping into an inflatable boat they steered to a nearby vessel.
Rescuers initially recovered four bodies about 145km northwest of Los Angeles just off Santa Cruz Island, and 16 others were pulled from the water later in the day.
The US Coast Guard has said five others have been found, but not recovered due to unsafe conditions under the boat, which sank about 18m from shore.
Authorities were to search for the nine people still unaccounted for through the night.
“We should all be prepared to move into the worst outcome,” US Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester told a news conference.
The four bodies initially recovered had injuries consistent with drowning, US Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Matthew Kroll said.
It was not immediately clear when the bodies on the ocean floor might be retrieved or when divers could search the boat for others.
“It’s upside down in relatively shallow water with receding tides that are moving it around,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.
Investigators have not yet determined a cause for the fire.
The 23m Conception was on a three-day excursion to the chain of rugged, wind-swept isles that form Channel Islands National Park in the Pacific Ocean.
The fire broke out at about 3am in Platt’s Harbor off Santa Cruz Island.
The five crew members who escaped took refuge on a fishing boat called The Grape Escape, anchored nearby.
Two had minor injuries, US Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney said.
The Grape Escape’s owners, Bob and Shirley Hansen, told the New York Times that they were asleep when they heard pounding on the side of their 18m vessel at about 3:30am and discovered the frightened crew members.
They told the couple they fled when the fire grew out of control.
“When we looked out, the other boat was totally engulfed in flames, from stem to stern,” Hansen said, estimating it was no more than 91m from his craft.
“I could see the fire coming through holes on the side of the boat. There were these explosions every few beats. You can’t prepare yourself for that. It was horrendous,” he said.
“The fire was too big, there was absolutely nothing we could do,” he added.
Hansen said two of the crew members went back toward the Conception looking for survivors, but found no one.
Asked at a news conference if the crew tried to help others aboard, Rochester told reporters: “I don’t have any additional information.”
The Conception, based in Santa Barbara Harbor, was owned by Truth Aquatics, a Santa Barbara-based company founded in 1974.
Dave Reid, who runs an underwater camera manufacturing business with his wife, Terry Schuller, and has traveled on the Conception and two other boats in Truth Aquatics’ fleet, said he considered all three among the best and safest.
“When you see the boats they are always immaculate,” he said. “I wouldn’t hesitate at all to go on one again. Of all the boat companies, that would be one of the ones I wouldn’t think this would happen to.”
Schuller said Truth Aquatics crews have always been meticulous in going over safety instructions at the beginning of every trip she has been on.
“They tell you where the life jackets are, how to put them on, the points of egress, the exits, where the fire extinguishers are, on every single trip,” said Schuller, who goes on diving expeditions often with her husband. “They are the best, the absolute best.”
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