Thirty-four people are now presumed to have died after a commercial diving boat caught fire off the coast of Santa Cruz Island in Southern California early Monday, officials said Tuesday.
With the exception of five crew members who managed to escape, search and rescue divers have found no additional survivors, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said in a press conference Tuesday.
"Our hearts go out to all of the victims' families who are having to endure this terrible process as we work to recover loved ones and have searched for their loved ones," Brown said.
Around 3:30 a.m. on Monday, US Coast Guard officials heard a mayday call from the boat, named Conception, which was moored 20 yards off the northern coast of Santa Cruz Island.
“I can't breathe," the caller could be heard saying in the distress call.
As of Wednesday morning, 33 of the victims' bodies had been recovered by rescue divers, with one still missing.
While the victims have not yet been publicly identified by officials, Brown said a 17-year-old is believed to be among the dead.
At the time of their deaths, the victims were in their sleeping quarters below deck. Their two possible escape routes were blocked by flames, trapping them inside. A sixth crew member was asleep with the passengers, the sheriff said, and is believed to be among the dead.
Victims' bodies will need to be identified through DNA analysis due to the "extreme thermal damage" they faced from the fires, according to the sheriff.
US Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester said the vessel was required to undergo annual safety examinations. As of its most recent exam, it had been compliant, which include it being equipped with smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, she said.
Officials are now investigating why the boat caught fire and how similar disasters can be prevented in the future, she said.
“This is probably the worst-case scenario you could possibly have,” Brown said at a Monday press conference.
The five surviving crew members, which include the captain, managed to survive because they were in their above-deck sleeping quarters when the fire broke out, Brown said. They jumped off the Conception and were rescued by a pleasure boat.
The Conception was operated by Truth Aquatics, which takes divers out to the Channel Islands National Park on a small fleet of boats. It had departed on Saturday and was set to return Tuesday morning.