OXNARD, Calif. — At least 25 people were confirmed dead and nine others still missing after a tragic boat fire early Monday near an island off the Southern California coast.
The dive-boat Conception, far out to sea in the middle of the night, became fully engulfed in flames as 30 passengers on a recreational scuba diving trip slept below deck.
"You couldn't ask for a worse situation," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said at a Monday news conference.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr Matthew Kroll said Monday night that 25 people had died. Five of six crew members on the Conception escaped by jumping into an inflatable boat they steered to a nearby vessel.
One crew member suffered non life-threatening injuries, the Coast Guard said.
Crew members did reportedly go back to the boat called the Conception after trying to find help but did not locate any survivors.
Four of recovered victims were only identified as two adult males and two adult females, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said. Four other bodies were spotted on the ocean floor near the vessel, but have not been recovered.
The Conception set out early Saturday morning from Santa Barbara Harbor for a Labor Day weekend diving excursion of the Northern Channel Islands. On board were five crew members and 34 customers.
After a day of activities, the customers were asleep on the lower deck when a fire started around 3 a.m.
The Coast Guard launched several assets from its Los Angeles-Long Beach base, where the first mayday call was heard at 3:15 a.m., officials said. Crews from the Coast Guard, Santa Barbara Fire Department and Ventura County Fire Department responded and were fighting the fire when the vessel sank 20 yards off shore in 64 feet of water at 7:20 a.m.
A portion of the distress call can be heard below:
The crew told a good Samaritan they had celebrated the birthday of a 17-year-old girl on board just hours before the fire.
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said the crew was likely able to escape because they were awake and above deck when then fire broke out.
The Conception was built in 1981 in Long Beach, it was docked in Santa Barbara. According to the website California Diving News, it has a maximum capacity of 46 people, with 13 double bunks and 20 single bunks.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said the Conception took off Saturday morning and was scheduled to return on Tuesday morning.
The tour was operated by Truth Aquatics - a respected Santa Barbara company.
"The vessel has been in full compliance. We are working deliberately with the vessel owner operator who is with us at this time," said Rochester
A call from the Coast Guard revealed details about the fire and response. A Coast Guard can be heard asking and confirming that people on the boat were locked or stuck below deck. Only the Coast Guard's side of the call can be heard.
"There is no escape hatch for any of the people on board?" he is heard asking in the call below.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department offered its support Monday morning in a tweet then moments later, the department tweeted that they were sending "Air Rescue 5 & Emergency Services Detail Divers."
The Coast Guard established a 3,000-foot temporary flight restriction around the Conception for the safety of first responders.
Worried loved ones were coming to the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Channel Islands searching for information. The Coast Guard said family members looking for information about their loved ones should call 833-688-5551 or 800-400-1572. A Family Assistance Center was being set up at Earl Warren Fair Grounds, 3400 Calle Real in Santa Barbara.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein called for an investigation into the deaths.
"It's inconceivable that with all the safety regulations we have in place today, a fire on a boat can lead to the loss of life we saw this morning near Santa Cruz Island," she said Monday afternoon.
"We need an immediate and robust interagency investigation. The Coast Guard, along with officials from Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, are already hard at work. Once personnel from the NTSB and FBI join the effort tomorrow, we must learn as much as possible about how this happened and how future tragedies can be prevented."
Meanwhile, authorities opened a family assistance center where counseling was being provided to relatives of those onboard. None of their names were immediately released.