Death toll rises to 25 in California dive boat fire

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(SANTA BARBARA, Calif.) — Divers were searching for bodies in the wreckage of a scuba diving boat off California on Tuesday, after a fast-moving fire trapped dozens of people below deck, Reuters reported.

Emergency crews found at least 25 bodies after the fire broke out before dawn off Santa Cruz Island on Monday, leaving nine people still missing, the Associated Press reported. Five of the six-person crew who were above deck on the bridge managed to escape in an inflatable boat.

The Coast Guard declined to confirm the figures as authorities launched an investigation into one of the area’s worst maritime disasters (click here to view a video of the response effort).

“We are looking for bodies now,” said Santa Barbara Fire Department spokeswoman Amber Anderson.

Officials said there were 33 passengers and six crewmembers on board the 75-foot Conception when the fire started at about 3:15 a.m. on Monday. The vessel later sank and was lying upside down under more than 60 feet of water, police said.

Witnesses reported hearing a number of explosions, but authorities said it was too early to say what caused the fire. Scuba or propane tanks on the boat may have blown up in the flames, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Monday.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it had sent a team of engineers and fire specialists to investigate. The boat’s owner, Truth Aquatics, referred queries about the accident to a joint media center.

Attorney Todd Lochner of the Lochner Law firm in Annapolis, Md., who specializes in boating law, said that ships’ crews face limited legal responsibilities to rescue passengers.

“There is no obligation to stand on the vessel and burn to death,” Lochner said. “That’s a romantic idea, perhaps of the days of old, that the captain has to go down with the ship.”

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The following is text of a news release from the U.S. Coast Guard:

(SAN PEDRO, Calif.) — The Coast Guard suspended its search for survivors aboard the Conception on Tuesday at 9:40 a.m.

In total, Coast Guard assets searched for 23 hours covering approximately 160 square miles.

The Coast Guard utilized the following assets throughout the search:

(4) Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco’s Forward Operating Base Point Mugu MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crews
(2) Coast Guard Station Channel Islands Harbor 45-foot response boat-medium crews
(1) Coast Guard Air Station San Diego MH-65 Jayhawk helicopter crew
The Coast Guard cutter Narwhal, an 87-foot patrol boat home-ported in Corona Del Mar.

The Coast Guard will continue working alongside partner agencies throughout the recovery and investigation phases.

By Professional Mariner Staff