The Coast Guard said Monday night that 20 bodies have been recovered and five more located from a boat that caught fire off the Channel Islands in Southern California early Monday morning. Nine people are still missing, and search efforts will continue though the night, but "we should all be prepared to move into the worst outcome," Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said at a news conference. Five crew members escaped from the 75-foot Conception when fire engulfed the vessel in Platt's Harbor off Santa Cruz Island.
The Conception was carrying 33 passengers on a three-day scuba excursion, and the five crew who escaped in an inflatable boat sought help from a boat anchored nearby. That boat's owners, Bob and Shirley Hansen, told The New York Times they were awakened by the frightened crew members pounding on the side of their fishing vessel. "When we looked out, the other boat was totally engulfed in flames, from stem to stern," Bob Hansen said. "I could see the fire coming through holes on the side of the boat. There were these explosions every few beats. You can't prepare yourself for that. It was horrendous."
A recorded distress call to the Coast Guard suggest the passengers were trapped in the below-deck sleeping quarters. Dave Reid, who runs an underwater camera manufacturing business, tells The Associated Press that the Conception's owners, Truth Aquatics, were extremely safety-conscious and among the best outfits in the area.
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Reid said he and his wife have traveled on the Conception and two other Truth Aquatics boats, and would do so again, but the sleeping quarters are on the lowest deck, separated from the one exit by a narrow stairway. If the fire was moving fast, they could have easily been trapped below deck, he speculated, and "if there was an explosion in the engine area that could have gone right into the sleeping area." The fire's cause is unknown.
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