An unexplained inferno raged through a dive boat anchored near an island off the Southern California coast early on Monday, leaving at least eight people dead and 26 others who were on the scuba diving vessel were missing after the gutted vessel sank, a local sheriff said.
Four bodies were recovered from the predawn fire and four other bodies were discovered on the ocean floor near the vessel, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.
The tragedy occurred aboard the vessel Conception sometime around 3 a.m. off Santa Cruz Island, part of a chain of rugged wind-swept isles that form Channel Islands National Park in the Pacific Ocean west of Los Angeles.
“Right now they’re conducting shoreline searches for any available survivors,” Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester told reporters at a brief news conference at Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard on the mainland.
The Coast Guard said the vessel was believed to have carried 38 people, including five crew members who jumped off soon after the fire ignited.
“The crew was actually already awake and on the bridge and they jumped off,” Rochester said.
Two suffered minor injuries, Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney said.
Authorities said the crew members were rescued by a good Samaritan vessel called The Grape Escape.
Asked if the crew tried to help others aboard, Rochester said, “I don’t have any additional information.”
A woman who came to the harbor said, “My son was on that boat.” She was led away by a Ventura County firefighter.
Rochester said the 75-foot (20-meter) commercial scuba diving vessel was anchored in Platts Harbor, about 20 yards (18 meters) off the northern coast of Santa Cruz Island, when the fire ignited.
She said the vessel sank in 64 feet (19.5 meters) of water but its bow was still visible above the waterline.
The Conception, based in Santa Barbara Harbor on the mainland, was on the final day of a Labor Day weekend cruise to the Channel Islands when the fire erupted.
“At 3:15 this morning the Coast Guard overheard a mayday call. The call was garbled, it was not that clear, but we were able to get some information out of it to send vessels on scene,” Barney said.
Rochester said that call indicated the boat was already fully ablaze.
The Conception was chartered by Worldwide Diving Adventures, which says on its website that it has been taking divers on such expeditions since the 1970s. It was owned and operated by Truth Aquatics, a Santa Barbara-based company founded in 1974.
Asked if the boat operator has a history of any violations, Rochester said, “The vessel has been in full compliance.”
Dave Reid, who runs an underwater camera business with his wife and who has traveled on the Conception and two other boats in Truth Aquatics’ fleet, said he considered all three among the best and safest dive-boats around.
“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.”
Reid noted divers sleep overnight in berths on the vessel’s lowest deck so they are rested and ready to dive all day when the sun comes up. No one is ever locked into that deck, he said, but coming up to the top deck to get off the boat requires negotiating a narrow stairway with only one exit. If the fire was fast-moving, he said, it’s very likely divers couldn’t escape and the crew couldn’t get to them.
Coast Guard records show inspections conducted last February and in August 2018 found no deficiencies. Earlier inspections found some safety violations related to fire safety.
A 2016 inspection resulted in owners replacing the heat detector in the galley and one in 2014 cited a leaky fire hose.
Records show all safety violations from the last five years were quickly addressed by the boat’s owners.
The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched a team to investigate.
The Conception had departed at 4 a.m. on Saturday with plans to return at 5 p.m. on Monday.
Truth Aquatics’ website reports the vessel, launched in 1981, has rafts and life jackets for up to 110 passengers and exits on the port, starboard and bow that provide “easy water entry.”
The trip promised multiple opportunities to see colorful coral and a rich variety of marine life around the Channel Islands, which draw boaters, divers and hikers.
Five of the eight Channel Islands comprise the national park and Santa Cruz is the largest within the park at about 96 square miles (248.6 square kilometers).