OXNARD, Calif. — The U.S. Coast Guard is searching for more than 30 people after a scuba diving boat caught fire off the coast of Southern California early Monday morning.
Five crew members, who were on board when the fire began, were able to evacuate, a Coast Guard spokeswoman, Capt. Monica Rochester, said at a news conference. The passengers were believed to have been asleep below deck on the boat, which multiple officials identified as a 75-foot scuba diving vessel named Conception. “The crew was actually already awake and on the bridge, and they jumped off,” she said.
The crew eventually made their way to a nearby 60-foot fisherman boat, The Grape Escape, owned by Bob and Shirley Hansen, who were asleep when they began to hear pounding on the side of the vessel around 3:30 a.m., Bob Hansen said in an interview. He soon threw on a pair of shorts and opened a cabin door to find five frightened men in their underwear.
The men, said Hansen, told him they were crew on the nearby diving vessel, Conception, which they had jumped from after a fire onboard grew out of control. They used an inflatable tender boat to reach the Hansens, the only other boat anchored in the area, in Platts Harbor, north of Santa Cruz Island, he said.
The enormity of the situation became clear a moment later when Bob Hansen saw the glow of massive flames in the dark.
“When we looked out, the other boat was totally engulfed in flames, from stem to stern,” he said, adding his boat was about 300 feet away from the Conception. “I could see the fire coming through holes on the side of the boat. There were these explosions every few beats. You can’t prepare yourself for that. It was horrendous.
“The fire was too big; there was absolutely nothing we could do. You never anticipate something like this. We just felt so helpless,” he added.
The Hansens gave clothes to the crew members, and helped dry them off. One he believed had broken his leg, evidently during the escape, and was in pain, he said. Two of the crew went back out toward the Conception to look for passengers who may have made it off the boat; they found no one, he said.
Search and rescue operations are still being conducted, and crews are searching the shoreline for survivors, Rochester said. The boat sank earlier in the morning in the harbor, about 20 yards from shore, as fire department crews fought the blaze.
“Our hearts are with the families and loved ones affected by this tragic incident,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Twitter. “We are eternally grateful for our heroic first responders that are on site — working to ensure every individual is found.”
Sen. Kamala Harris said on Twitter she was “heartbroken over the news out of Santa Cruz Island.”
A 75-foot boat named Conception had been scheduled for a three-day diving trip in the area beginning Saturday, according to the website of Truth Aquatics, a Santa Barbara trip operator, which counts the Conception among its fleet.
There was still no information Monday about the nature of the fire. Rochester said the boat was fully in compliance and had no prior violations.
Jonathan Blackman said in an interview Monday that he had been on diving trips on Truth Aquatics boats, including one last year, and had always found the staff on board to be professional.
“They’re usually men and women who are dedicated to the sport themselves,” said Blackman, 53, who lives in San Francisco and has been diving for decades. “They want to make sure everyone has a good time. Their focus is on safety.”
On such trips, he said, passengers typically sleep below deck, where points of entry and exit can be limited. Last week, Blackman booked a four-day trip with Truth Aquatics, a tour scheduled for October aboard the Conception.
At the news conference, Rochester said that 34 people were still missing, though estimates from officials had been in flux throughout the morning Monday. (Less than an hour before the news conference, the Coast Guard had said in a statement that only 33 were missing.)
The Coast Guard picked up a mayday call related to the fire at about 3:15 a.m. and dispatched two helicopter crews and several boats to the scene, where they were met by partner law enforcement agencies.
Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, California, where the local Coast Guard is headquartered, was covered in fog Monday morning, which locals said was an everyday occurrence and frequently cleared up by the afternoon. Despite the tragedy offshore, business continued largely as usual along the harbor; out on the water were recreational boats, kayakers and paddle boarders.
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Santa Cruz Island, in Santa Barbara County, is one of five islands in Channel Islands National Park, according to the website for the National Park Service, which owns and manages about a quarter of the island. The other three-quarters is owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy. California’s largest island, at about 96 square miles, Santa Cruz Island is about 20 miles from Ventura, the website said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.