Twenty-five people have died and another nine remain missing

Twenty-five people are confirmed dead and another nine remain missing following a tragic fire aboard a charter dive boat off the Southern California coast, according to the Associated Press (AP), in what is being called “California’s worst maritime disaster in recent memory.”

Thirty passengers were on a three-day recreational scuba diving trip and asleep below deck on the 75ft Conception when fire broke out about 3:00am on Monday morning. Five crew members sleeping on deck were able to escape with minor injuries and summon help from a nearby fishing boat.

Two of the crew members returned to the burning vessel in search of survivors and found none, according to the LA Times.

Local, state and federal investigators were trying to determine exactly what went wrong on the Conception, but a full investigation and recovery of additional bodies must wait until the charred remains of the vessel can be secured and safely entered by dive teams and eventual salvage.

“Most everybody was asleep,” said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, noting the combination of remote location, rapidly spreading fire and the victims’ vulnerable position on the boat. “You couldn’t ask for a worse situation,” according to the Times.

“It’s upside down in relatively shallow water with receding tides that are moving it around,” Brown told the AP.

Witnesses say occasional explosions were heard coming from the burning boat, which would be consistent with the pressurised breathing tanks that would be on board.

The Conception and its owners, Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics, are said to have the highest reputation among customers and other charter operators alike.

Coast Guard records show all safety violations from the last five years were quickly addressed by the boat’s owners. Some safety violations were related to fire safety. A 2016 inspection resulted in owners replacing the heat detector in the galley and one in 2014 cited a leaky fire hose.

The Conception was chartered by Worldwide Diving Adventures, which says on its website that it has been taking divers on such expeditions since the 1970s.