Rescue workers said Tuesday they have recovered the bodies of 20 people killed in a middle-of-the-night fire aboard a dive boat off the coast of Southern California, while continuing to look for 14 more people feared dead.
Divers, in water 20 meters deep, scoured the submerged remains of the 23-meter commercial dive boat, called Conception, where the blaze broke out before dawn Monday, trapping 34 people, who likely were asleep below deck and unable to escape.
The U.S. Coast Guard, however, said it had ended 24 hours of aerial searches of the surrounding waters after finding no sight of survivors swimming to escape the disaster.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff-Coroner Bill Brown said that among the 20 bodies recovered so far, there were 11 women and nine men. He said the bodies of another four to six victims were spotted, but divers could not immediately pull them from the wreckage.
The U.S. Coast Guard said five crew members were awake on the boat’s bridge when the fire broke out and jumped to safety in a dinghy.
While authorities have not disclosed the names of the victims, a 41-year-old marine biologist with years of diving experience, Kristy Finstad, was identified by her brother Brett Harmeling as the leader of the dive trip and among the missing.
Authorities have not said what they believe caused the fire.
In a recording of a desperate call to the Coast Guard, a man is heard gasping for air, shouting, “Mayday, mayday, mayday!”
The federal National Transportation Safety Board said it has dispatched a team of engineers and fire specialists to investigate the accident.
The Conception was on a Labor Day weekend cruise taking divers to the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California. The vessel was chartered by Worldwide Diving Adventures, a Santa Barbara excursion company.