VENTURA (CBSLA) – Twenty five people were killed and nine more remain missing after a blaze broke out on a charter boat early Monday morning directly off Santa Cruz Island, across from the Ventura County coastline.
At 3:15 a.m., the U.S. Coast Guard and Ventura County Fire Department crews rushed to a mayday call that the "Conception" -- a 75-foot-long charter dive boat carrying 39 people -- was ablaze 20 yards off Platts Harbor on the north side of Santa Cruz Island, which is located about 30 miles west of the city of Ventura.
Coast guard officials said in a press conference Monday that 39 people were aboard, included six crew members and 33 passengers. Officials confirmed Monday evening 25 bodies had been found. Five crew members survived and nine people remained unaccounted for.
Twenty bodies have been recovered from the water and another five have been found near the wreckage, but have not yet been pulled from the water. The rescue operation was expected to continue into Tuesday morning. There was no word on what may have sparked the blaze.
Five crew members, including the captain, were above deck and jumped off the burning Conception. They somehow made it into a dingy and paddled to safety, where they were rescued by a nearby good Samaritan's boat called the "Grape Escape."
"I can't breathe!" a member of the crew can be heard screaming in the mayday call obtained by CBS2.
"The crew was actually already awake, and on the bridge, and they jumped off," Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester told reporters.
The passengers, meanwhile, were all below deck at the time.
"The report I received is they (the passengers) were below deck asleep," Rochester said.
Ventura County Fire crews battled the blaze, but the boat eventually sank in 64 feet of water, about 20 yards offshore.
The Coast Guard spent Monday scoured the area with choppers and boats for any possible survivors who had managed to jump off the Conception or made it to the shore.
At around 7:30 a.m., one of the surviving crew members was seen being boated in to Channel Island Harbor by rescuers and then placed into an ambulance to be taken to a hospital. He appeared to have suffered a leg injury. It's unclear if the man was a crew member or one of the divers.
CBS2 has confirmed Conception is owned by Truth Aquatics, a boat rental service based out of Santa Barbara. It was built in Long Beach and first launched in 1981. According to Truth Aquatics' website, Conception has a maximum capacity of 46 people. The company would not immediately comment on the incident when reached by CBS2. The charter appeared to have been booked by a group called Worldwide Diving Adventures.
Experienced diver and CBS2 employee Darla Fletcher, who has taken several diving trips with Truth Aquatics, explained that the divers' quarters on the boat are below deck and very cramped.
"Typically, the crew members will sleep up top, they're not gonna sleep down there with the divers," Fletcher said. "Especially on a full boat like this weekend, there were probably divers filling every possible bunk."
Fletcher spoke highly of Truth Aquatics, which has been running charters since 1974.
"They're a great company to dive with," Fletcher said. "They take care of you. All their crew members are always looking out for you. They are just an amazing group of people."
Family members of those aboard the ship seeking information can call the Coast Guard at 833-688-5551 or 805-696-1188.
President Donald Trump retweeted a Ventura County Fire Department tweet about the fire, indicating he had been briefed on the incident. The National Transportation Safety Board is sending a team out to investigate.
Actor Rob Lowe, a Santa Barbara resident, wrote in a tweet Monday, "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."
Santa Cruz Island is one of eight islands that make up the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California, which includes Catalina Island.
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