At Least 25 Dead, Nine Missing In Early Morning Boat Inferno
A middle-of-the-night fire swept a boat carrying recreational scuba divers anchored near an island off the Southern California coast early Monday, leaving at least 25 dead and nine others missing.
Five of six crew members on the Conception escaped as the fire raged by jumping into an inflatable boat they steered to a nearby vessel.
Rescuers recovered four bodies about 140 kilometres northwest of Los Angeles just off Santa Cruz Island. The Coast Guard says five others were found but weren't recovered due to unsafe conditions under the boat, which sank about 20 metres 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," Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said at a news conference.
The four bodies recovered initially had injuries consistent with drowning, said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll.
It wasn't 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 haven't determined what sparked the fire.
The 23-metre 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 around 3 a.m. in Platt's Harbor off Santa Cruz Island.
The five crew members who escaped took refuge on a boat called The Grape Escape, anchored nearby. Two had minor injuries, Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney said.
The Grape Escape's owners, Bob and Shirley Hansen, told The New York Times they were asleep when they heard pounding on the side of their 60-foot fishing vessel about 3:30 a.m. 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 90 metres 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.
"The fire was too big, there was absolutely nothing we could do," he added.
A crew member can be heard screaming, "I can't breathe!" in a mayday call obtained by CBS Los Angeles.
There was no word on what may have sparked the blaze.
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 on the mainland, 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."
His wife said Truth Aquatics crews have always been meticulous in going over safety instructions at the beginning of every trip she's 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."
Both said the sleeping area is comfortable but tight, with bunk beds stacked next to one another on the lowest deck. Coming to the top deck to get off requires navigating a narrow stairway with only one exit. If the fire was fast-moving, Reid said, it's very likely divers couldn't escape and the crew couldn't get to them.
"If there was an explosion in the engine area that could have gone right into the sleeping area," Reid said.
The Conception was on the final day of a Labor Day weekend cruise when the fire erupted and a mayday call was made. Rochester said that call indicated the boat was already fully ablaze.