25 dead, 9 missing in California boat fire

Twenty-five people enjoying the long Labour Day weekend in a dive boat, above, (Photo credit: Ventura County Fire Department) off the coast of Southern California died on Monday when their vessel burst into flames and sank as they were sleeping, local reports say.

The cause of the fire was not immediately known.

Nine people, including a crew member, were missing when rescuers suspended their search operations off Santa Cruz Island late on Monday. Among those missing was Kristy Finstad, co-owner of the Santa Barbara-based company Worldwide Diving Adventures which chartered the boat, Conception.

Finstad’s brother, Brett Harmeling, said the family is anxiously waiting to hear from her, adding that things are not looking good at this juncture.

Five of the six-member crew jumped off the boat and escaped.   

The boat carrying 33 passengers left Santa Barbara Harbour at 4am on Saturday for a three-day excursion to Channel Islands. It was supposed to return by 5 pm on Monday.

The accident happened at 3 am the same day near Santa Cruz Island off the Ventura County coast. The boat was then anchored in 64 feet of water off the island’s coast.

Rescuers found four bodies near the vessel and pulled 16 more by evening. Five bodies found on the ocean’s floor are yet to be recovered. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said people’s hearts go out to the families of the dead.

The dead passengers would have be identified through DNA, Brown said.

US Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester said the search would continue on Tuesday and they are prepared for the worst outcome.

To ensure that search operations go unhindered, a one-mile safety zone has been set up around the scene of accident.

Coast Guard officials said they received frantic mayday calls at 3.15am from the captain of the vessel saying dozens of people on board were trapped in a deadly fire.

By the time crews from the Coast Guard, Santa Barbara Fire Department and Ventura County Fire Department arrived, the vessel was gutted.

Five of the boat’s crew members, who were awake during the incident, jumped off the vessel into an inflatable boat and boarded another vessel Grape Escape anchored not far off, Rochester said.

The missing passengers were believed to be sleeping below deck at the time of the fire.

Grape Escape’s owner Bob Hansen told a national newspaper that the boat was in flames from stem to stern and he heard explosions.

Boat followed safety norms

The 75-foot boat owned and operated by Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara had capacity for 46 people. On Monday, only 39 people, including the crew, were on board.

The boat was equipped with safety devices like rafts, more than 110 life jackets and CO2 fire extinguishing system.

Coast Guard officials, who conducted vessel safety checks in February and August last year, found no deficiencies. However, earlier inspections found some safety violations related to fire safety.

The boat owners had quickly addressed all issues related to safety violations over the past five years.