LOS ANGELES — Coast Guard officials said eight people are dead and at least 26 are missing after a 75-foot commercial diving boat erupted in flames near the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island early Monday.

Many aboard the vessel Conception were thought to be sleeping below deck when the fire broke out in the predawn hours. Authorities continued their search Monday for possible survivors, as the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s coroner office prepared for a mass casualty incident.

“This isn’t a day we wanted to wake up to for Labor Day and it’s a very tragic event,” said Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester. “I think we should all be prepared to move into the worst outcome.”

Authorities identified four of the victims as two men and two women and said they will need to be identified through DNA. Four additional victims were found on the ocean floor and dive teams were working to recover those bodies, as well as any others that might be inside the now sunken boat, said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.

Five crew members were already awake and jumped off the boat, which was 20 yards off shore of the north side of Santa Cruz Island near the Ventura County coast, Rochester said. One crew member remains unaccounted for.

“Our hearts go out to the families of the victims of this terrible tragedy,” Brown said. “We understand the tremendous burden they are under right now.”

Around 3:15 a.m. PDT, Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach watchstanders overheard a mayday call of the boat on fire, according to the agency. Fire department crews were fighting the fire when the boat sank 20 yards off shore in 64 feet of water, with a portion of the bow sticking out of the water.

In a garbled mayday call, a man says there are 39 people aboard.

“I can’t breathe,” the man frantically says.

The five crew members were rescued by a good Samaritan boat, the Grape Escape, according to the agency. Two of them sustained leg injuries.

Shirley Hansen and her husband, Bob, were jarred awake about 3:30 a.m. by the sound of pounding on the side of their 60-foot fishing boat.

The crew had escaped the Conception by jumping into the ocean, retrieving a dinghy and paddling 200 yards to the Hansens’ boat, the Grape Escape, Shirley Hansen said in an interview.

The crew was distraught, some wearing only underwear, she said. One man told the Hansens that his girlfriend was still below deck on the Conception. Another man cried, describing how they had celebrated three passengers’ birthdays hours earlier, including that of a 17-year-old girl who was on the diving trip with her parents.

One crewman’s leg was injured, Shirley Hansen said, and another had visible ankle injuries. She could see the Conception ablaze from her boat and said there was so much smoke she had to use an inhaler.

As the Hansens handed out blankets and clothes to the crew, two of the men got back into the dinghy to see if anyone else had jumped overboard.

“But they came back and there was no one that they found,” Shirley Hansen said.

Authorities have set up a family assistance center at Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara. A family information line has been opened at (833) 688-5551.

Several charter operations run diving expeditions around the Channel Islands. The charters typically take off from Ventura and Santa Barbara Harbor for several days.

The boat departed from its base in Santa Barbara Harbor on Saturday morning and was scheduled to return Monday about 5 p.m.

At Santa Barbara Harbor, employees said they could not comment on the deaths and were still waiting to hear from the Coast Guard. Employees were hugging each other as tourists and other people going fishing were boarding a nearby boat.

Truth Aquatics, the company that owns Conception, is a respected name in the diving world, running several boats off the Channel Islands. Owner Glen Fritzler won the California Scuba Service Award earlier this year for his pioneering work in the industry.

According to California Diving News, Fritzler built the Conception in 1981 and it was a major part of his life and business.

“Conception was California’s crown jewel of live-aboard dive boats. It’s also where Glen met the love of his life, Dana. On the couple’s first dive together they encountered a 17-foot great white shark, truly a memorable first dive-date experience,” Diving News reported.

Fritzler told the paper his firm’s boats have hosted more than 450,000 divers and more than 1 million dives.

Truth Aquatics would not comment Monday morning. A person who answered the phone said they were waiting for official word from the Coast Guard and needed to keep their lines clear.

Ralph Clevenger, a photographer who regularly takes pictures of expeditions for Truth Aquatics, has been on hundreds of diving trips with the company since the ‘90s.

Jerry Boylan is usually the captain of the Conception, Clevenger said, although he doesn’t know if Boylan manned the vessel during the Labor Day trip. He noted that Boylan is a top-notch captain who has been with Truth Aquatics longer than anyone else, other than the company’s owner.

“It’s a position where if you’re not good with people and your crew, and operating the boat, you just don’t last,” Clevenger said.

When Rochester was asked if the boat operator has a history of violations, she said, “The vessel has been in full compliance.”

“We are working deliberately with the vessel owner operator, who is with us at this time, working on a plan to conduct further assistance for his vessel,” Rochester said.

Bruce Rausch, a veteran dive master in Orange County and a retired San Onofre nuclear design engineer, said he has been on diving trips aboard the Conception more than a dozen times.

Before any guest begins a dive, Rausch said, the ship’s first captain completes an extensive safety briefing that covers the location of life jackets, deploying life boats, and the location of two bunk room exits, a ladder at the bow end and an escape hatch toward the stern. The briefing also discusses the alarms on board, as well as underwater alarms and notes the location of fire extinguishers.

The safety briefing, Rausch said, is done within the galley at the site of the escape hatch, a roughly 2-feet by 2-feet square plank of wood with no lock or latch on it. Below, the rows of bunks hold a maximum of 46 people, some in single or double beds stacked in threes.

Members of the tight-knit scuba diving community expressed grief over the tragedy on social media.

“The boat, owners, Captain and crew have always been exemplary and have kept us safe and returned us back to the dock,” according to a post from San Luis Obispo dive shop SLO Ocean Currents on Facebook on Monday morning. “It is a humbling day and a reminder to make every day count.”

“I know we speak for the SoCal diving community when we say we were shocked to hear the news this morning,” Thousand Oaks dive shop Channel Islands Scuba posted on its Facebook page. “Our heartfelt prayers and condolences to those directly affected.”

U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., said she had been planning to go to a Labor Day parade when she heard news of the boating accident.

“Devastating. Tragic. And we’re hoping there could still be some survivors,” said Brownley, after being briefed by the Coast Guard in Oxnard.

Gov. Gavin Newsom also shared a statement on Twitter regarding the fire.

“Our hearts are with the families and loved ones affected by this tragic incident. As we wait to hear more, we are eternally grateful for our heroic first responders that are on site — working to ensure every individual is found.”

Tribune Wire

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