Up to 34 people may be dead after a boat they were on caught fire and turned into a death trap on Labor Day, with most of the attendees sleeping below deck.
The boat was just 20 yards away from a Southern California shoreline off Santa Cruz Island when the boat caught fire at around 3 a.m.
Its captain and four colleagues jumped overboard, but one other crew member and 33 passengers who were sleeping below had no way of escaping, CNN reports. The dive-boat, named Conception, was filled with scuba divers, as it was supposed to be a recreational scuba diving trip.
Divers and search crews were still looking Tuesday for nine missing people after at least 25 were confirmed dead.
“You couldn’t ask for a worse situation,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll said late Monday night at least 25 people died. He said 20 bodies were recovered and five others were found but not retrieved due to unsafe conditions under the boat, which sank in about 60 feet of water.
Kroll said the count of those found was based on initial reports and needed to be confirmed through autopsies.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday! Conception ... north side of Santa Cruz,” a man cried in a dramatic mayday call around the time the bought caught fire. “I can’t breathe!” the man said, the Los Angeles Times reports.
The five crew members sleeping on the top deck jumped off and took a dinghy to safety. Two had minor injuries. No names were immediately released.
The survivors were rescued by a vessel called the Grape Escape, owned by Bob and Shirley Hansen. Shirley Hansen told the Los Angeles Times they woke up to pounding on their boat and saw the survivors hanging on a dingy.
“It was horrific, the pounding,” she said. “Our boat is very well made. Having that sound come through [showed] they were very in need of help. [...] As it was burning, there would be explosions going off every couple of minutes,” she said. “It was probably some of the dive tanks exploding. It made me feel so helpless.”
One of the passengers had just celebrated their 17th birthday hours before fire engulfed the boat.
One passenger, marine biologist and veteran diver Kristy Finstad, 41, was identified in a Facebook post by her brother, Brett Harmeling of Houston.
“Please pray for my sister Kristy!! She was leading a dive trip on this boat,” Harmeling wrote.
Actor Rob Lowe tweeted as a response to the tragedy, "My heart breaks for those onboard the Conception. An unspeakable horror on a boat I’ve been on many times. My prayers and thoughts are with the families."
The cause of the fire is still unknown.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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