Rescue crews located what they believed were the remains of 25 people who died after a diving boat caught fire off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, north of Los Angeles, according to a U.S.A. Coast Guard official.
The 75-foot commercial vessel called the Conception, carrying 33 passengers and six crews, went up in flames at about 3:30 a.m. Monday, officials said.
In a text message conversation with NBC News, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr Matthew Kroll said crews collected what appeared to be the bodies of 25 people. He said the figures needed to be confirmed by the coroner.
"You just need to keep in mind that the numbers may change slightly as the coroner examines the remains," he said.
At least nine people are still missing
Five crew members, who were awake and above deck on the bridge of the ship, jumped off and were rescued by a "good Samaritan" recreational vessel, US Coast Guard Capt.
Thirty-four of the 39 aboard boats were sleeping below deck when the fire broke out, Rochester said.
The Conception, operated by Truth Aquatics out of Santa Barbara,
The boat was scheduled for a three-day $ 665 diving excursion "to explore the pinnacles of San Miguel Island" that departed Saturday morning and was due back Monday evening, according to a Truth Aquatics schedule.
Truth Aquatics is a Santa Barbara Harbor-based operation that has been in existence since 1974.
Bob Hansen told NBC News that he and his wife were in their boat The Grape Escape in a cove about 400 yards away at the time of the fire and helped the captain and four crew members who managed to escape the fire.
Hansen said one of the crewmen had what appeared to be a broken leg, and another said his girlfriend was on the board and did not make it off, Hansen said. Some were crying. They were clearly distraught, he said.
“They felt so helpless. They said that with everything – so much on fire so much that they just couldn't get to them, "Hansen said.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said the timing of the fire and the ship's location contributed to the tragedy, with flames breaking out as almost everyone on the board was sleeping.
"To be in a remote location, have a fire that occurs, have limited if any firefighting capability that could address and then have all of a sudden a fire that spreads very, very fast, you couldn't ask for a worse situation, "he said Monday.
The vessel sank to the ocean floor about 20 yards from the shore four hours after the fire started and is currently sitting upside down in 62 feet of water.
Officials said Monday they were in discussions about how to handle the boat's wreckage – whether it could be towed without breaking apart or should be examined on the site.
So far, there is no immediate evidence of a criminal act.
Santa Barbara County said Monday the names of the victims are withheld pending notification of kin.
Kurt Chirbas contributed.