Sunday 15 September 2019

Dozens feared dead as scuba dive boat catches fire off California

Four bodies have been recovered and more than two dozen are still missing.

(Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)
(Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)

By Stefanie Dazio, Associated Press

The bodies of four people killed after a raging fire swept through a dive boat off the California coast have been recovered as authorities said more than two dozen others remain missing.

US Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Matthew Kroll said the four bodies had injuries consistent with drowning.

Searchers continued to look for more than two dozen other people who were aboard the vessel Conception, which burned while anchored off Santa Cruz Island.

“Right now they’re conducting shoreline searches for any available survivors,” Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester told reporters at a brief news conference at Channel Islands Harbour in Oxnard.

The Coast Guard said the vessel is believed to have had 38 people on board, including five crew members who jumped off the boat soon after the fire ignited before dawn.

“The crew was actually already awake and on the bridge and they jumped off,” Ms Rochester said. Two suffered minor injuries, said Petty Officer Mark Barney.

Authorities said the crew members were rescued by a passing boat called The Grape Escape.

Ms Rochester said the 75ft commercial scuba diving vessel was anchored in Platt’s Harbour, about 20 yards off the northern coast of Santa Cruz Island, when the fire ignited at around 3am.

She said the vessel sank in 64ft of water, adding its bow is still visible above the waterline.

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VCFD firefighters respond to the boat fire (Ventura County Fire Department/AP)

The Conception was on the final day of a Labour Day weekend cruise to the Channel Islands when the fire erupted.

“At 3.15 this morning the Coast Guard overheard a mayday call. The call was garbled, it was not that clear, but we were able to get some information out of it to send vessels on scene,” Mr Barney said.

Ms Rochester said that call indicated the boat was already fully ablaze.

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. It was owned and operated by Truth Aquatics, a respected Santa Barbara-based company founded in 1974.

Asked if the boat operator has any history of violations, Ms Rochester said: “The vessel has been in full compliance.”

The National Transportation Safety said it is sending a team to investigate.

Divers sleep in a single room of bunk beds, according to a diagram of the Conception on Truth Aquatics’ website.

The website says the vessel, launched in 1981, has rafts and life jackets for up to 110 passengers and exits on the port, starboard and bow that provide “easy water entry”.

The trip promised multiple opportunities to see colourful coral and a variety of marine life around the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California.

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