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Five members of same family among 34 presumed dead in California scuba diving boat fire

Authorities say they have ended their search for survivors.

Mourners at a makeshift memorial at the Sea Landing in the Santa Barbara Harbour
Mourners at a makeshift memorial at the Sea Landing in the Santa Barbara Harbour
Image: Patrick Fallon/ZUMA Wire/PA Images

HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS, a science teacher and his daughter, and a family of five celebrating a birthday are among 34 people presumed to have died in a fire aboard a scuba diving boat off the coast of California.

Authorities have ended their search for survivors of the fire aboard the Conception, which happened in the early hours of Monday morning.

Divers have recovered the bodies of 11 women and nine men and spotted another four to six trapped in underwater wreckage of the 23-metre boat.

“Today we will begin the process of mapping DNA profiles of the 20 victims that we have recovered so far, so that they can be compared with family samples,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told a news conference.

The boat had been on a diving excursion around Santa Cruz Island, just west of Santa Barbara in southern California, when disaster struck early on Monday.

Five crew members were awake and jumped into the water when flames burst out around 3.15am. They were rescued by a nearby pleasure craft.

A total of 39 people were on board, officials said, leaving 14 yet to be recovered and presumed dead.

Both a staircase and an escape hatch leading down to the lower deck where passengers were sleeping appeared to have been blocked by the fire, Brown said.

boat-fire-california A wooden cross and a sign at a vigil for the victims of the diving boat €Conception Source: AP/PA Images

On Tuesday, emergency officials began attempts to stabilise the boat so that divers could safely enter it and retrieve remaining victims.

Mourners gathering at the Santa Barbara docks set up a makeshift memorial, attaching large, colorful bouquets of flowers and messages of condolences to a fence along the waterfront.

One photo of a young woman, surrounded by candles, contained the note “I Love you Allie,” while another card simply said: “Wishing you peace.”

‘I felt so helpless’

The search operation saw three helicopter crews and boats scour a region covering over 250km for just under 24 hours, but no signs of survivors were found, said Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester.

“It is never an easy decision to suspend search efforts,” she said. “We know this is a very difficult time for family and friends of the victims.”

boat-fire-california Firefighters respond to a the fire on board the Conception off the coast of southern California on Monday Source: Ventura County Fire Department via AP/PA Images

The operation will now enter a recovery and investigation phase “to try and determine why this incident occurred,” she added.

County fire chief Mark Hartwig added that authorities were “expending all necessary means to find out the cause and origin of the fire”.

US Senator Dianne Feinstein called for an “immediate and robust” investigation into the disaster on Monday, saying it was “inconceivable” that a fire could lead to such heavy loss of life given existing safety regulations.

Bob Hansen, a sailor on board the nearby pleasure boat that rescued the crew members, told the Los Angeles Times that he heard “explosions going off every couple of minutes,” which may have been caused by dive tanks exploding.

“It made me feel so helpless,” he said.

However, Brown said that the explosions were heard well after the fire began and there was no evidence they had triggered the inferno.

- © AFP 2019 with reporting from Associated Press.

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