Authorities were able to recover some of the bodies from the wreck. (AP: Christian Monterrosa)
California police believe none of the 34 passengers aboard a dive boat sunk by a fast-moving fire off Santa Cruz Island have survived, as recovery workers prepare for an attempt to retrieve the bodies of 14 people still missing.
- Authorities have to stabilise the wreckage before attempting to locate and retrieve the remains of the 14 victims
- Five crew were able to escape the blaze on an inflatable raft, but the other passengers were trapped in sleeping quarters below deck
- Investigators are working to determine what started the fire
Emergency workers planned to use DNA analysis to identify the badly-burned remains of the 20 people so far removed from the 23-metre Conception ship, which was lying upside down under more than 18 metres of water following the blaze, which broke out early Monday morning (local time).
“There were several other victims that were seen by the divers — between four and six — that are still between the wreckage, but due to the position of the boat they were unable to be recovered before nightfall,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told a news conference.
“Today, efforts will be made to stabilize the boat so that divers can safely enter it, search it and recover additional victims.”
Five of the six-person crew who were above deck on the bridge managed to escape in an inflatable boat.
The single crew member who did not survive appeared to have been sleeping below deck with the passengers when the fire broke out.
Officials said DNA was needed for identification because the 11 female and nine male victims were so badly burned.
Victims range in age from 17 to 60 and most are from the Santa Cruz and San Jose area, authorities said.
The search for survivors involved three helicopter crews and covered 258 square kilometres, said US Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester.
An investigation is underway “to try to find out why this tragedy happened”, Captain Rochester said.
Authorities say scuba tanks exploded in the heat of the fire, rather than causing the blaze. (AP: Ventura County Fire Department)
As the flames engulfed the boat, a man placed a desperate call to the Coast Guard, gasping for help in the smoky fire.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday!” he said in a recording of the call.
“That’s a distress [call], this is the Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles on channel 1-6, what is your position … and number of persons on board? Over,” the dispatcher answered.
“Twenty-nine. 29 POB,” said the man in the somewhat inaudible call. “I can’t breathe! … 29 POB.”
The dispatcher requested the GPS location of the vessel at least two more times but the caller apparently fails to respond.
Kristy Finstad was leading the dive trip on the Conception, according to a Facebook post shared on Monday by her brother, Brett Harmeling.
Ms Finstad, a scuba diving instructor and marine biologist, was one of the owners of Worldwide Diving Adventures, the firm that chartered the boat for a three-day excursion to the Channel Islands.
Authorities said the explosions reported by witnesses likely were scuba or propane tanks that burst in the heat of the fire, rather than the cause of the fire itself.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it had sent a team of engineers and fire specialists to investigate the blaze.