By Omar Younis
Santa Barbara, Calif. (Reuters) – Divers searched for more bodies early on Tuesday around the wreck of a boat destroyed by a blaze off the coast of southern California, as authorities launched an investigation into one of the area’s worst maritime disasters.
Emergency crews found at least 25 bodies after the fire broke out before dawn on Monday, leaving nine people still missing, the Associated Press reported. The coastguard declined to confirm the figures.
“We are looking for bodies now,” said Santa Barbara Fire Department spokeswoman Amber Anderson.
Flames ripped through the scuba diving vessel Conception, as it was moored off Santa Cruz Island, trapping the passengers below deck. Five of the six-strong crew managed to escape in an inflatable boat, but no one else has been found.
The boat sank later in the morning and was currently lying upside down under more than 60 feet (18 meters) of water, police said.
Witnesses reported hearing a number of explosions, but authorities said it was too early to say what caused the fire. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said on Monday scuba or propane tanks on the Conception may have blown up in the flames.
The federal National Transportation Safety Board said it had sent a team of engineers and fire specialists to investigate the blaze.
There were a total of 33 passengers and six crew members onboard the Conception, a 75-foot boat, when the fire started at about 3:15 a.m. (1015 GMT) on Monday, officials said.
The surviving crew members sought refuge on a fishing boat moored nearby, 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 told the New York Times. “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 towards the Conception to look for survivors without luck, Hansen said.
Investigators said a single mayday call came from the boat reporting the fire.
“It happened quickly enough so many people could not get off,” U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Matthew Kroll told CNN.
The diving boat was chartered 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 centre. “This is still an ongoing search and rescue,” it said.
(Reporting by Omar Younis; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely and Jonathan Allen in New York and Alex Dobuzinskis and Bill Tarrant in Los Angeles and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Andrew Heavens)