At least eight people died Monday morning in the violent fire of a tourist boat off the coast of California, and the chances of survival of 26 other passengers, still untraceable more than twelve hours after the tragedy, were more and more thin.
The boat, a 22-meter-long vessel set up for diving trips, sank as firefighters tried to extinguish the fire early in the morning, the coastguard said.
When the firefighters arrived on the scene, the ship was "entirely in flames," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told the press conference at a news conference.
Calcined to the waterline, the "Conception" now lies about 20 meters deep, just 20 m from the coast of Santa Cruz Island, off Santa Barbara, its home port . He had anchored there in the shelter of a creek to spend the night.
Four dead victims have been recovered, "two adult men and two adult women" who have not been formally identified, said Sheriff Brown.
On-site relief "located four more victims at the bottom of the ocean near the ship," he added. "Right now we have teams of divers trying to retrieve the bodies, but the boat is still unstable and I'm not sure we will be able to catch those bodies or others that may still be in the ship." said Bill Brown.
Relief workers have deployed a large device, with divers and helicopters, to search the area for possible survivors, but the authorities fear that the remaining 26 missing have remained prisoners of the flames.
"Our efforts will continue all night and into tomorrow morning (Tuesday), but I think we all have to prepare for the worst," said Monica Rochester, coastguard captain.
A total of 39 people were on board, six crew members and 33 passengers, she said, to dispel contradictory information circulating on the exact composition of the people on board.
"Intense fire" still unexplained
Five crew members, who were awake when the fire broke out, were able to jump overboard and were picked up by a nearby pleasure boat, Captain Rochester added.
The rest of the passengers were probably sleeping at the time of the tragedy.
The emergency call received by the rescue came from the "Conception", she said, stating that "the ship was perfectly in order".
The US media broadcast an excerpt of the SOS radioed by a crew member. "I can not breathe," the sailor desperately asks his Coast Guard interlocutor. The latter asks him if the passengers can go out and if the crew has fire extinguishers to fight the flames, but the answers are inaudible.
"It's a big boat and we know we have many dead, I do not have an exact number," Bill Nash, a spokesman for Ventura County, warned early in the morning.
"I do not have information about any survivors at this stage," said Coast Guard officer Aaron Bemis.
"The five crew members were able to leave because they were in the main cabin," he told CNN. The passengers "were under the bridge and according to the information we have, they were trapped by the fire."
"The fire was so intense that even after it was extinguished, we could not go on board and (...) go in search of survivors," he added.
According to Mr. Bemis, the fire broke out around 3:15 am (10:15 GMT) and the rescuers were notified by radio about fifteen minutes later.
No hypothesis was available at this stage on the cause of the fire.
In addition to the sheriff-led investigation, the maritime authorities have also launched investigations into the disaster.
According to the website of its shipowner Truth Aquatics, the "Conception", built in 1981, left Santa Barbara on Saturday at dawn for an excursion dedicated to scuba diving in the neighboring islands, an extremely touristy area.
He was to return to his home port Monday late afternoon, holiday in the United States.
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