LOS ANGELES (REUTERS) - Divers found 25 bodies on Monday (Sept 2) after a pre-dawn fire sank a scuba diving vessel off a Southern California island, leaving nine people unaccounted for, as the US Coast Guard continued its search, media reported.
Representatives for the Coast Guard’s division in Los Angeles and the Santa Barbara, California, Sheriff’s Office could not immediately confirm the reports from CBS News and the Associated Press, of the recovery operation in waters off Santa Cruz.
Earlier a local sheriff said eight people were confirmed dead from the incident.
The fire broke out aboard the Conception, a 23-metre boat, at about 3.15am while it was moored just off the shore of Santa Cruz Island, the US Coast Guard said in a statement.
Passengers slept in the ship’s lower quarters, officials said, while five crew members who were above deck on the bridge escaped.
The Coast Guard searched the coastline of Santa Cruz Island for any other possible survivors but had not found anyone, officials said.
“This isn’t a day that we wanted to wake up to for Labor Day and it’s a very tragic event, Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester told a news conference.
“We will search all the way through the night into the morning but I think we all should be prepared to move into the worst outcome,” she said.
Four bodies were recovered from the area and rescue divers found another four bodies on the ocean floor near the sunken vessel, which lies upside down under more than 60 feet (18 metres) of water, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters earlier.
“Fire is the scourge of any ship,” Brown said, and to be in a remote location, asleep and then have a fire spread very quickly, “you couldn’t ask for a worse situation.”
The four bodies that were recovered will have to be identified through DNA samples, Brown said.
The Conception, which launched in 1981, embarked for California’s Channel Islands on Saturday morning with 39 people on board.
James Kohl, brother of one of the missing passengers, told KTLA TV in Los Angeles he was told there was a propane gas explosion on board, but Rochester said she could not confirm that.
Asked about that, US Coast Guard Lt. Commander Matthew Kroll told CNN the cause of the fire was still undetermined. “It happened quickly enough so many people could not get off,” he added.
An image posted by the VCFD shows the vessel engulfed in flames. It sank in 64 feet (20 meters) of water just 20 yards off the Santa Cruz shore with just the tip of its bow showing, the Coast Guard said.
Local media reported foggy conditions along the southern California coast.
Of the five persons rescued near the coast of Santa Barbara, at least one had minor injuries, the Coast Guard said.
The diving boat was operated by Worldwide Diving Adventures, a Santa Barbara excursion firm which said on its website the Conception was on a three-day excursion to the Channel Islands, and was due back in Santa Barbara at 5pm Pacific time on Monday.
If there are fatalities, a coroner’s inquest will be conducted by Santa Barbara officials, county Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lieutenant Eric Rainey said by phone.
Rainey said he could not confirm any fatalities but said he presumed there were some deaths because of “the extent of the fire and the fact that I think the rescued individuals told those rescuers that there were people on board that didn’t make it off the boat”.
“I’m crossing my fingers that there may be people on the shore,” he added.
The Red Cross of Central California said it was will open a reunification center in Santa Barbara. “We have trained mental health and spiritual care volunteers onsite for anyone who needs support,” it said on Twitter.