Dozens of people are dead or missing after a fire swept through a diving boat off the coast of Santa Cruz Island in Southern California in the pre-dawn hours Monday morning.
As of Tuesday, officials said the fire killed 34 people. Search and rescue crews have recovered the bodies of 25 passengers who were unable to escape the inferno that broke out aboard the 75-foot commercial diving vessel called the Conception. The search for survivors was called off Tuesday morning.
The diving boat was carrying 39 people – 33 passengers and six crew members – on a three-night diving excursion by Worldwide Diving Adventures “to explore the pinnacles of San Miguel Island,” one of the Channel Islands off the Southern California coast, according to the company’s schedule. The boat departed Santa Barbara Harbor on Saturday and was due back Monday evening.
Five crew members who were awake on the bridge of the boat were able to flee the boat and make their way to a nearby recreational vessel, according to U.S. Coast Guard officials
Most of the boat’s occupants were asleep on one of the vessel’s two lower decks when the fire broke out about 3:15 a.m.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said the time and place of the accident contributed to its severity, making it a worst-case scenario.
“To be in a remote location, have a fire that occurs, have limited if any firefighting capability that could address and then to have all of a sudden a fire that spreads very, very rapidly, you couldn’t ask for a worse situation,” he said, according to NBC News. Nearly all the boat’s occupants were sleeping when the fire broke out.
Search and rescue teams continued to ply the waters until the search was called off, looking for the eight passengers and one crew member who remained unaccounted for. Some of the bodies were recovered from the wreckage of the diving boat, which sank to the ocean floor 64 feet below.
The Conception was one of a fleet of diving boats operated by Truth Aquatics, a company that has been operating diving adventures out of Santa Barbara since 1974. The company has a good reputation and was in full compliance with safety regulations, Capt. Rochester said, according to NBC News. Actor Rob Lowe said he has been on the Conception many times before. The diving boat originally launched in 1981.
Authorities investigating the fire say that so far there is no evidence of a criminal act.
Dave Reid, who runs an underwater camera business with his wife, was one of several people who praised Truth Aquatics, its boats, and its crew members in an interview with the Associated Press. But he also noted that the diving boat’s configuration would have made it difficult for passengers to escape from the lowest levels where they sleep, via a narrow stairway, should a fire break out above them.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney told the Associated Press that the crew appeared to quickly call for help.
“The call was garbled, it was not that clear, but we were able to get some information out of it to send vessels,” he said.
Officials aren’t certain if they will try to recover the diving boat and bring it to shore for an investigation or continue their underwater probe of the sunken vessel.
The fire is one of the deadliest maritime disasters in U.S. history. In October 2015, 33 people died when the El Faro cargo ship sank in rough seas near the Bahamas. In July 2018, a Ride the Ducks tour boat sank in Branson, Missouri’s Table Rock Lake, killing 17 people.