3 Sep 2019

California boat fire: Bodies recovered, many people missing near Santa Cruz Island

6:28 pm on 3 September 2019

At least 25 bodies have been recovered from the ocean floor after a pre-dawn fire sank a scuba diving boat off a Southern California island.

A fire on a boat off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, California.Photo released by the Ventura County Fire Department on September 2, 2019.

Photo: AFP / Ventura County Fire Department

Nine people were still missing. Five crew members had escaped earlier.

The fire started in the early hours of Monday. The boat was anchored just metres off Santa Cruz Island, about 145km west of Los Angeles.

The Conception - a commercial diving boat - is now submerged. The cause of the blaze is so far unknown.

At a news conference, Sheriff Bill Brown said 39 people were on board the vessel when fire broke out.

Coastguard services overheard a mayday call at 3.30am local time on Monday, saying the boat was engulfed in flames, according to Captain Monica Rochester, the coastguard sector commander for Los Angeles/Long Beach.

Reports suggested some passengers could have been trapped below deck. Those who escaped the fire may have been sleeping in the main cabin of the boat rather than below.

They were awake and had jumped off the boat's bridge before a pleasure craft arrived to rescue them. One survivor has minor injuries.

Sheriff Brown speculated that oxygen or propane tanks could have exploded during the fire, but there was no sign this sparked the blaze.

"Nothing in the [mayday] broadcast from the vessel ... indicated there was an initial explosion," he said.

Capt Rochester said the boat was "fully in compliance" with safety regulations, and had no prior violations.

Sheriff Brown said the fire was "probably the worst case scenario you could possibly have" on a vessel, as it was in open water at night with most people asleep below decks.

"Fire is the scourge of any ship," he said. "Of all scenarios... you couldn't ask for a worse situation."

The Conception sank 18m off the north shore of Santa Cruz Island, at the depth of 20m.

Run by a diving company called Truth Aquatics, which has a 4.5 rating on Trip Advisor, Conception was used for chartered trips in the Channel Islands National Park.

It was on the final day of a three day scuba diving excursion for the Labor Day weekend.