OXNARD, California: Divers found 25 bodies on Monday (Sep 2) after a pre-dawn fire sank a scuba diving vessel off a Southern California island, leaving nine people unaccounted for, as the US Coast Guard continued its search, media reported.
Representatives for the Coast Guard's division in Los Angeles and the Santa Barbara, California, Sheriff's Office could not immediately confirm the reports from CBS News and the Associated Press, of the recovery operation in waters off Santa Cruz.
The boat had nearly 40 people on board when the fire erupted, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.
The fire broke out aboard the Conception, a 75-foot (23-metre) boat, at about 3.15am while it was moored just off the shore of Santa Cruz Island, the Coast Guard said in a statement.
Five crew members aboard escaped the fire while the passengers slept in the ship's lower quarters.
"The crew was already awake and on the bridge and jumped off," Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester told a news conference in Oxnard.
The crew members sought refuge on a fishing boat moored a few hundred feet away, banging on the side to wake up Bob Hansen and his wife, who were sleeping onboard.
"When we looked out, the other boat was totally engulfed in flames, from stem to stern," Hansen said in an interview with reporters. "There were these explosions every few beats. You can't prepare yourself for that. It was horrendous."
After borrowing clothes from the Hansens, some crew members headed back toward the Conception to look for survivors without luck, Hansen said.
The four deaths were confirmed by Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney, who declined to give further details. The search for the missing was still under way, he said.
US Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who represents California, called for an investigation.
"It's inconceivable that with all the safety regulations we have in place today, a fire on a boat can lead to the loss of life we saw this morning," she said in a statement. "And we need to understand exactly how the crew was trained and, if they were awake and above-deck, why they were unable to alert or help rescue passengers."
US Representative Julia Brownley, a Democrat whose district includes Ventura County, called the fire "devastating."
"We still are hoping that there could still be some survivors," she told reporters in Oxnard, the nearest city to the island, about 30 miles (48km) off the California shoreline.
US news outlets released audio of a distress call in which a crew member on the boat yells, "Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!" and "I can't breathe!"
A Coast Guard operator asks the man if the passengers can get off the boat and if the crew has fire extinguishers, but the response is inaudible.
Investigators said a single mayday call came from the boat reporting the fire, but they could not confirm the cause.
"It happened quickly enough so many people could not get off," US Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Matthew Kroll told reporters.
After becoming engulfed in flames, the boat sank in 64 feet (20m) of water 20 yards off the Santa Cruz shore with just the tip of its bow showing, the Coast Guard said.
Local media reported foggy conditions along the coast.
At least one of the rescued crew members suffered minor injuries, the Coast Guard said.
The diving boat was operated by Worldwide Diving Adventures, a Santa Barbara, California, excursion firm. It said on its website that the Conception was on a three-day excursion to the Channel Islands, and was due back in Santa Barbara at 5 p.m. on Monday.
The boat's owner, Truth Aquatics, referred queries about the accident to a joint media center. "This is still an ongoing search and rescue," it said.