The 75-foot commercial vessel called the Conception, carrying 33 passengers and six crew, went up in flames at about 3:30 a.m. Monday, officials said.
In a text message conversation with NBC News, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll said crews collected what appeared to be the bodies of 25 people. He said that figure needed to be confirmed by the coroner.
“You just need to keep in mind that the numbers may change slightly as the coroner examines the remains,” he said.
At least nine people are still missing and the search for survivors was ongoing, he added.
Five crew members, who were awake and above deck on the bridge of the ship, jumped off and were rescued by a “good Samaritan” recreational vessel, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said earlier.
Thirty-four of the 39 aboard the boat were sleeping below deck when the fire broke out, Rochester said.
The Conception, operated by Truth Aquatics out of Santa Barbara, was in full compliance with regulatory requirements, she added.
The boat was scheduled for a three-day $665 diving excursion “to explore the pinnacles of San Miguel Island,” according to a Truth Aquatics schedule. It departed Saturday morning and was due back Monday evening.
Truth Aquatics is a Santa Barbara Harbor-based operation that has been in existence since 1974.
Bob Hansen told NBC News that he and his wife were in their boat, “The Grape Escape,” in a cove about 400 yards away at the time of the fire and helped the captain and four crew members who managed to escape the fire.
Hansen said one of the crewmen had what appeared to be a broken leg, and another said his girlfriend was on board and did not make it off, Hansen said. Some were crying. They were clearly distraught, he said.
“They felt so helpless. They said that with everything — so much on fire so much that they just couldn’t get to them,” Hansen said.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said the timing of the fire and the ship’s location contributed to the tragedy, with flames breaking out as almost everyone on board was sleeping.
“To be in a remote location, have a fire that occurs, have limited if any firefighting capability that could address and then to have all of a sudden a fire that spreads very, very rapidly, you couldn’t ask for a worse situation,” he said Monday.
The vessel sank to the ocean floor about 20 yards from the shore four hours after the fire started and is currently sitting upside down in 62 feet of water.
Officials said Monday they were in discussions about how to handle the boat’s wreckage — whether it could be towed without breaking apart or should be examined on site.
So far, there’s no immediate evidence of a criminal act.
Santa Barbara County said Monday that names of the victims are being withheld pending notification of kin.
Yuliya Talmazan is a London-based journalist.
Elisha Fieldstadt is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.
David K. Li
David K. Li is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.