Five crew members who jumped off the dive boat Conception were rescued, and Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll told The Associated Press the Coast Guard was searching for others who may have been able to escape the same way.
He added, however, that they were feared dead. Two of the crew suffered minor injuries, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney.
Capt. Brian McGrath of the Ventura County Fire Department confirmed some deaths to The Associated Press but said he could not give an exact number.
“Right now they’re conducting shoreline searches for any available survivors,” Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester told reporters at a brief news conference at Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard.
“The crew was actually already awake and on the bridge and they jumped off,” she said, adding they were rescued by a good Samaritan vessel called The Grape Escape.
Asked if the crew tried to help others aboard, Rochester said, “I don’t have any additional information.”
A woman who came to the harbor said, “My son was on that boat.” She was led away by a Ventura County firefighter.
Rochester said the 75-foot (20-meter) commercial scuba diving vessel was anchored in Platt’s Harbor, about 20 yards (18 meters) off the northern coast of Santa Cruz Island, when the fire ignited around 3 a.m.
She said the vessel sank in 64 feet of water, adding its bow is still visible above the waterline.
The Conception was on the final day of a Labor Day weekend cruise to the Channel Islands when the fire erupted.
“At 3:15 this morning the Coast Guard overheard a mayday call. The call was garbled, it was not that clear, but we were able to get some information out of it to send vessels on scene,” Barney said.
Rochester said that call indicated the boat was already fully ablaze.
The Conception was operated by Worldwide Diving Adventures, a respected Santa Barbara-based company that says on its website it has been taking divers on such expeditions since the 1970s.
Asked if the boat operator has a history of any violations, Rochester said, “The vessel has been in full compliance.”
The National Transportation Safety said it is sending a team to investigate.
The Conception had departed at 4 a.m. Saturday with plans to return at 5 p.m. Monday.
Divers sleep in a single room of bunk beds, according to a diagram of the Conception posted on the website for Truth Aquatics, the Santa Barbara company that owns the ship.
The website says the vessel, launched in 1981, has rafts and life jackets for up to 110 passengers and exits on the port, starboard and bow that provide “easy water entry.”
The trip promised multiple opportunities to see colorful coral and a variety of marine life.