Five crew members were brought to safety by good Samaritans after a dive boat caught fire and sank with more than two dozen passengers on board near Santa Cruz Island Monday.
The blaze erupted overnight on the Santa Barbara-based Conception, which was anchored about 20 yards off the north side of the island near Platts Harbor, officials said.
A "gargled" mayday call around 3:15 a.m. prompted a multi-agency response, according to a U.S. Coast Guard statement. About four hours later, the vessel sank in 64 feet of water as responding firefighters struggled to put out the flames.
The 75-foot commercial diving vessel was on a three-day Labor Day weekend cruise and was set to return to Santa Barbara that day. There were 39 people on board, authorities said.
Boats and helicopters have been scouring the shoreline for hours in search of other survivors, but as of mid-afternoon, only five crews members have been located alive.
The crew members were awake at the time, and escaped by jumping off the boat into the water, said Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester.
They were able to evacuate onto a nearby pleasure craft called the Grape Escape, according to the Coast Guard. The agency earlier misidentified the boat as the Great Escape.
The Grape Escape's owner, 73-year-old Bob Hansen, told The Daily Beast that the boat was anchored in a cove when he and his wife Shirley heard pounding.
“I put on some shorts and walk outside and open the door and here’s five guys in a little rubber boat and a 75-foot commercial boat on fire,” he said. “It was really on fire... the whole thing engulfed in flames."
Hansen told the publication the flames were about 25-feet high.
"It’s just burning," he said. "There were five tanks that were blowing up—or we thought there were—these big pops.”
In separate interviews, the couple described feeling helpless as they watched flames consume the diving boat, all while they tried to assist the vessel's crew.
Shirley Hansen told the Los Angeles Times the crew members were distraught and soaking, some in tears as they boarded the watercraft from a dinghy. The couple gave them blankets and fresh clothing.
Of the five crew members the couple took in, one had a badly broken leg, according to Bob Hansen. His wife said another had an injured ankle.
Bob called the Coast Guard and, after they arrived on scene, took the crew members back to shore, The Daily Beast reported.
“We don’t feel like good Samaritans,” Shirley told the Times. “We just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
The Coast Guard said 25 people have been located and nine remain unaccounted for.
Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll said Monday night authorities have recovered 20 bodies and discovered five more. Those five cannot be recovered due to unsafe conditions under the Conception.
Four bodies had been recovered Monday morning and 16 others were recovered later in the day.
Kroll said authorities will continue to search overnight for the nine remaining people.
Coast Guard Senior Chief Aaron Bemis told CNN that the crew members were in the main cabin. The passengers were asleep and below deck.
“The report we got was they were trapped by the fire. The fire was so intense that even after it was put out, we’re not able to actually embark the vessel and, you know, look for survivors at this point. It’s still ongoing,” Bemis said.
According to one crew member, the passengers included at least three people who, just hours before the disaster, had celebrated their birthdays, Shirely Hansen told the Times. One was a 17-year-old girl who was on the trip with her parents.
Another crew member tearfully told the Hansens that his girlfriend was among those below deck, Shirley said.
Two members of the crew went back in the dinghy to try and locate survivors.
“But they came back and there was no one that they found,” Shirley told the Times.
The Conception is equipped with a fixed carbon dioxide engine room fire suppression system and an emergency radio beacon, as well as rafts and jackets for 110 passengers, according to the website of Truth Aquatics, which operates the boat.
It had no recent safety violations, the Associated Press reported.
In addition to the Coast Guard, the Santa Barbara and Ventura County fire departments, as well as Vessel Assist, also responded.
Santa Cruz Island is located about 20 miles southwest of the city of Ventura and is the largest of the Channel Islands off coastal Southern California.
KTLA's Jennifer Thang contributed to this story.