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Presumed death toll reaches 34 as search suspended for survivors of boat fire near Santa Cruz Island

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Posted at 4:03 PM, Sep 03, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-03 19:03:39-04

OXNARD, Calif. — Officials said Tuesday 34 people are presumed dead after a boat packed with scuba divers caught fire near an island off the coast of Santa Barbara and they have called off search efforts for survivors.

Many of the 39 people aboard the 75-foot Conception were thought to be sleeping below deck when the fire broke out about 3:15 a.m. Monday. The vessel was anchored about 20 yards off Santa Cruz Island when the charter became engulfed in flames, said Mike Eliason, spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. The victims have yet to be identified.

As of early Tuesday, authorities said 25 bodies had been located, nine were still missing and five were rescued. Of those who were recovered, 11 of the victims were females and nine were males, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said at a press conference Tuesday morning. He said four to six others have been located by divers but have not yet been recovered due to unsafe conditions around the boat.

Most, including those who suffered "extreme thermal damage," need to be identified by DNA analysis and officials are collecting samples from family members, Brown said.

Multiple agencies responded to the scene, where five crew members who jumped overboard were able to escape on a dingy and were pulled from the water after banging on Bob and Shirley Hansen's pleasure craft. The crew told the Hansens one of the crew members had a girlfriend on board the engulfed boat. One of the rescued individuals suffered a broken leg.

Those five crew members were awake and on the bridge of the boat when the flames broke out.

The Hansens say they observed flames and plumes of smoke billowing out of the vessel as several small explosions went off every few minutes, which they believe were caused by the dive tanks.

"It was so overwhelming to come out and see these men there, and look over and see the extent of the fire," Shirley Hansen said. "The flames were shooting up into the sky."

The Hansens were told by the crew that there were three birthday parties on board the boat, including one for a 17-year-old.

"When they opened the galley door, which was the main exit for those people sleeping down below, they said there was so much fire in there that even the roof tiles were on fire and falling from the ceiling already," Bob Hansen said. "So there was no access for them to get to the 34 guests that were below."

Thirty-four candles were placed on a pier near the site of the deadly incident to remember each person who was on the boat.

Of the 25 bodies that have been located, 20 were physically recovered. The remaining five have been located but cannot be recovered because of unsafe conditions under the Conception, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr Matthew Kroll told the Associated Press.

"It was horrific. I'd never seen such a thing," Bob Hansen said. "There wasn't a part that wasn't burning. Everything was burning on it."

The Conception sank in 64 feet of water as firefighters were battling the blaze, leaving the charter protruding from the water, officials said.