At least 25 people are dead and nine are missing after a fire broke out aboard a 75-foot commercial diving boat off the coast of California’s Santa Cruz Island early Monday morning.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr Matthew Kroll confirmed to the Associated Press late Monday night that the bodies of more than two dozen passengers had been located. Twenty bodies have been recovered from the scene of the accident, but five others that have been found could not be recovered due to unsafe conditions.
The agency said it would continue to search for those unaccounted for throughout the night.
Thirty-nine people were on board the now-sunken boat when the crew contacted the U.S. Coast Guard for help around 3:30 a.m., Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters later Monday afternoon. By the time the crew got in touch with authorities, the boat was already engulfed in flames, officials said.
Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester said people should be prepared for “the worst outcome” as rescue divers search for the other passengers.
As of 4 p.m. local time, just five people ― all crew members ― had been found and rescued. Many of the passengers aboard the boat, which had taken divers out on Saturday and planned to return Tuesday, were asleep and below deck.
“You couldn’t ask for a worse situation,” Brown said of the boat’s remote location and the fire’s early morning start time.
“We’re doing everything we can to see if anybody could have survived this,” he continued, noting that the search around the boat and nearby coastline was still underway.
The first four bodies recovered Monday morning won’t be identified until the coroner’s office performs a DNA test, Brown said, but confirmed that the first victims discovered were two adult men and two adult women. The four additional bodies discovered later on Monday will remain on the ocean floor until it’s safe for rescue divers to retrieve them.
News of the disaster first broke early Monday morning when Ventura County fire officials tweeted that they were responding to a fire aboard a dive boat southwest of Oxnard. Coast Guard officials said then that they had rescued the five crew members on board and found the first four bodies.
The boat began to sink while firefighters responded to the fire, according to the Coast Guard.
In audio from the initial distress call uploaded by the Los Angeles Times, a person on board identifies himself as the captain and says he “can’t breathe.” Later, through static, he tells the dispatcher there’s “no escape hatch for any of the people on board.”
A representative for Truth Aquatics, which operates the boat, would not comment, saying he was awaiting word from officials.
Officials said that while identifying bodies and notifying next of kin is the top priority, they hope to soon begin investigating the cause of the fire. It’s possible a scuba or propane tank exploded, but the vessel’s broadcast for help didn’t indicate there had been an explosion, they said.
Local, state and federal agencies, including the Coast Guard, the sheriff’s office, the California Office of Emergency Services and the National Transportation Safety Bureau, are working together to investigate what went wrong.