Up to 34 people have been reported missing and are feared dead off the coast of southern California after a diving boat caught fire in the early hours of Monday morning, with crew members jumping off the deck to escape, while passengers were asleep below decks.
The US Coast Guard confirmed up to 39 people were onboard the commercial scuba diving vessel at the time of the blaze. Five have been confirmed rescued, while dozens remain unaccounted for, with reports of multiple fatalities remaining unconfirmed early on Monday afternoon.
The boat at the time was docked near Santa Cruz Island, which is located off the coast of Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. It has since sunk.
The Los Angeles Coast Guard sector responded to a mayday call coming from the boat at approximately 3.15am local time, when it was dark and later misty, reporting simply that a vessel was engulfed in flames. Over an hour later, the US Coast Guard of Los Angeles announced on Twitter that a rescue operation for “more than 30 people in distress” was launched.
In a follow-up tweet, the coast guard said the crew members of the ship were rescued. At least one crew member sustained minor injuries.
At the Coast Guard station in Oxnard, law enforcement officials had minimal information to share to crowds of reporters that had gathered by mid-morning local time.
US Congresswoman Julia Brownley, who represents the area, was on the scene and met with authorities, who were working to locate missing people and had sent out helicopters.
“What’s happening here is just about deployment and search and rescue,” she said, adding, “They have a mission.”
She noted that the region had already been through so much devastation with last year’s deadly wildfires: “Sadly, we’ve been through two major California fires … [but] never had this particular kind of emergency.”
Audio of the frantic mayday call captured someone on board shouting, “I can’t breathe,” before the call was cut off.
A nearby “good Samaritan” pleasure craft evacuated the crew members who were able to escape the ship.
The passengers reported missing were below deck and sleeping when the fire started, US Coast Guard official Monica Rochester said at a press briefing, as a search and rescue mission was still in full flow on Monday. The five crew members were on the bridge of the vessel, awake at the time flames were spotted, and were able to jump off the boat when the fire erupted.
While firefighters tamed the blaze, the vessel sank 20 yards off the shore in more than 50ft of water, the US Coast Guard reported.
By Monday afternoon, the vessel had just a portion of its bow sticking out of the water. Rochester said the US Coast Guard is still in a response phase and is still conducting shoreline searches for survivors.
The Ventura County Fire Department released dramatic pictures of the blaze on Twitter on Monday morning, depicting the ship engulfed in smoke and bright orange flames in the early morning darkness.
Coast guard senior official Aaron Bemis told CNN that the fire kept resisting being extinguished, appearing to die out and then bursing back into flames, possibly because of the amount of fuel on the ship. He said that it kept “being put out and re-flashing”.
“The report that we got is that they were trapped by the fire,” Bemis told CNN of the missing passengers. “The fire was so intense that even after it was put out, we were not able to actually embark the vessel and look for survivors at [that] point.”
The vessel was named Conception, a diving tour boat. The boat is owned by a company called Truth Aquatics, a local boat rental service that offers diving tours off the coast of southern California.
The boat was being used for a three-day diving tour of islands, including Santa Cruz Island, just off the coast of Santa Barbara, according to Truth Aquatics website. Passengers boarded the boat at Santa Barbara Harbor Friday night, and the vessel was set to return to Santa Barbara late on Monday afternoon. The trip cost the boat’s passengers $665 each, which included “gourmet cuisine” cooked on the ship, according to the website.
California Diving, a local diving publication, described the boat as “California’s crown jewel of live-aboard dive boats” when it was built in 1981.
Rochester said the boat was in “full compliance” with regulations.
The US Coast Guard is “working deliberately with the vessel owner/operator, who is with us at the time working on a plan to conduct further assistance for his vessel,” she said.