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At least 25 dead after California dive-boat fire, U.S. Coast Guard says

A middle-of-the-night fire swept a boat carrying recreational scuba divers anchored near an island off the Southern California coast early Monday, leaving at least 25 dead and nine others missing as of late Monday night.

Authorities to search for 9 people still unaccounted for through the night

In this photo provided by the Ventura County Fire Department, firefighters respond to a boat fire off the coast of southern California on Monday. (Ventura County Fire Department via The Associated Press)

A middle-of-the-night fire swept a boat carrying recreational scuba divers anchored near an island off the Southern California coast early Monday, leaving at least 25 dead and nine others missing as of late Monday night.

Lt.-Cmdr. Matthew Kroll of the U.S. Coast Guard said authorities have recovered 20 bodies and discovered five more. Those five cannot be recovered due to unsafe conditions under the Conception, a dive ship that had been on a three-day scuba diving excursion to the Channel Islands.

Five of six crew members on the Conception escaped by jumping into an inflatable boat they steered to a nearby vessel.

"We should all be prepared to move into the worst outcome," Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said at a news conference.

Watch as crews respond to the fire on the Conception:

The U.S. Coast Guard said a fire on a boat carrying recreational scuba divers anchored near an island off the Southern California killed at least 25 people and left nine others missing. 0:54

It wasn't immediately clear when the bodies on the ocean floor might be retrieved or when divers could search the boat for others.

"It's upside down in relatively shallow water with receding tides that are moving it around," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said. Investigators have not yet determined a cause for the fire.

The Conception was on a three-day excursion to the chain of rugged, wind-swept isles that form Channel Islands National Park in the Pacific Ocean. The fire broke out around 3 a.m. local time in Platt's Harbour off Santa Cruz Island.

'Totally engulfed in flames'

The five crew members who escaped took refuge on a boat called The Grape Escape that was anchored nearby. Two had minor injuries, Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney said.

The Grape Escape's owners, Bob and Shirley Hansen, told The New York Times they were asleep when they heard pounding on the side of their fishing vessel about 3:30 a.m. and discovered the frightened crew members. They told the couple they fled when the fire grew out of control.

"When we looked out, the other boat was totally engulfed in flames, from stem to stern," Hansen said, estimating it was no more than 91 metres from his craft. "I could see the fire coming through holes on the side of the boat. There were these explosions every few beats. You can't prepare yourself for that. It was horrendous.

"The fire was too big, there was absolutely nothing we could do," he added.

Hansen said two of the crew members went back toward the Conception looking for survivors but found no one. Asked at a news conference if the crew tried to help others aboard, Rochester told reporters, "I don't have any additional information."

The Conception, based in Santa Barbara Harbour on the mainland, was owned by Truth Aquatics, a Santa Barbara-based company founded in 1974. Dave Reid, who runs an underwater camera manufacturing business with his wife, Terry Schuller, and has traveled on the Conception and two other boats in Truth Aquatics' fleet, said he considered all three among the best and safest.

"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."

His wife said Truth Aquatics crews have always been meticulous in going over safety instructions at the beginning of every trip she's been on.

"They tell you where the life jackets are, how to put them on, the points of egress, the exits, where the fire extinguishers are, on every single trip," said Schuller, who goes on diving expeditions often with her husband. "They are the best, the absolute best."

Both said the sleeping area is comfortable but small, however, with bunk beds stacked next to one another in a tight space on the vessel's lowest deck. Coming up to the top deck to get off requires navigating a narrow stairway with only one exit. If the fire was fast-moving, Reid said, it's very likely divers couldn't escape and the crew couldn't get to them.

"If there was an explosion in the engine area that could have gone right into the sleeping area," Reid said.

Daunting situation for rescuers

The Conception was on the final day of a Labour Day weekend cruise when the fire erupted and a mayday call was made. Rochester said that call indicated the boat was already fully ablaze.

After hearing the call, Capt. Paul Amaral of the vessel assistance company TowBoatUS said a boat sped from Ventura Harbour some 48 kilometres to the island.

"We launched that boat knowing that the vessel was on fire, lots of people aboard," he told The Associated Press.

A Coast Guard helicopter and a fireboat were on scene when he arrived around 5 a.m. local time. He first searched the water and shoreline, then turned back to the Conception, which was going aground.

Amaral said he attached a line and pulled it into deeper water where fireboats could reach.

Brown said the elements of the tragedy were daunting for rescuers: The boat was in a remote location with limited firefighting capabilities, passengers were sleeping below deck in the middle of the night and there was a quick-moving fire.

"You couldn't ask for a worse situation," the sheriff said.

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.

Coast Guard records show inspections of the Conception 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 Channel Islands 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 248.6 square kilometres.

A memorial outside Truth Aquatics in the Santa Barbara Harbor grew Monday night as mourners came to pay their respects.