SANTA BARBARA (California) • Divers were searching for more bodies yesterday around the wreck of a boat destroyed by a blaze off the coast of southern California, as the authorities launched an investigation into one of the area's worst maritime disasters.
Rescuers had found at least 25 bodies after the fire broke out before dawn on Monday, leaving nine people still missing, the Associated Press reported. The coastguard declined to confirm the figures.
Flames ripped through the scuba diving vessel Conception, as it was moored off Santa Cruz Island, trapping the passengers below deck. Five of the six-strong crew managed to escape in an inflatable boat, but no one else has been found.
The boat sank later in the morning and was currently lying upside down under more than 18m of water, police said.
Witnesses reported hearing a number of explosions, but the authorities said it was too early to say what caused the fire.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown on Monday said scuba or propane tanks on the Conception may have blown up in the flames.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it had sent a team of engineers and fire specialists to investigate the blaze.
There were 33 passengers and six crew members on board the Conception, a 75-foot boat, when the fire started at about 3.15am local time on Monday, officials said.
The surviving crew members sought refuge on a fishing boat moored nearby, banging on the side to wake up Mr Bob Hansen and his wife, the owners, who were sleeping on board.
"When we looked out, the other boat was totally engulfed in flames, from stem to stern," Mr Hansen told the New York Times. "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."
After borrowing clothes from the Hansens, some crew members headed back towards the Conception to look for survivors but had no luck, Mr Hansen said.
Investigators said a single mayday call came from the boat reporting the fire.
"It happened quickly enough so many people could not get off," US Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Matthew Kroll told CNN.
The diving boat had been chartered by Worldwide Diving Adventures, a Santa Barbara excursion firm. It said on its website that the Conception was on a three-day excursion to the Channel Islands, and was due back in Santa Barbara at 5pm on Monday.
The boat's owner, Truth Aquatics, referred queries about the accident to a joint media centre. "This is still an ongoing search and rescue," it said.