This story was last updated at 1:02 p.m.
A Santa Barbara-based commercial dive boat caught fire and sank early Monday near Santa Cruz Island, and nearly three dozen people were missing and feared dead, according to the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department confirmed there were fatalities, but was unable to provide details.
At about 12:30 p.m., four bodies were brought ashore at the Santa Barbara Harbor.
The stricken vessel was identified as the 75-foot Conception, and reportedly was on a three-day scuba diving trip to the island with 39 people aboard, said Mike Eliason, a Fire Department spokesman.
The Conception’s crew put out a distress call at about 3:30 a.m., reporting the vessel was engulfed in flames, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
The boat, which was about 20 yards offshore, eventually sank in some 65 feet of water, Eliason said. The vessel was anchored in Platts Harbor on the mainland side of the island, about 28 miles south of Santa Barbara.
The Coast Guard said a portion of the bow is currently sticking out of the water.
Five crew members reportedly were awake and on deck when the fire broke out, and were able to jump into the water to escape the flames.
The five were rescued, at least one with injuries, by a nearby good Samaritan pleasure craft, the Grape Escape, according to the Coast Guard.
As of early afternoon, 30 others aboard remained missing.
“We know that there are fatalities, but we don’t know how many,” sheriff’s Lt. Erik Raney told Noozhawk.
At a morning news media briefing at Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said she did not know the cause of the fire.
She added that shoreline searches were continuing for possible survivors.
Reports said the crew members were awake on an upper deck while the passengers were sleeping down below, but that could not be confirmed.
The Coast Guard responded with multiple vessels and two helicopters, Eliason said.
Firefighters from the Ventura County Fire Department also were transported to the burning boat in two vessels.
The Conception is one of three vessels — along with the Truth and the Vision — operated by Truth Aquatics out of Sea Landing at the Santa Barbara Harbor.
It has a capacity of 46 passengers, and life rafts and jackets for 110 people, according to the company’s website.
The passenger bunking area is on the lower deck, according to a diagram on the website.
The vessel left port at 4 a.m. Saturday and was scheduled to return Monday afternoon.
Bob Hansen, the owner of Grape Escape, told The Daily Beast that he and his wife were anchored in a cove on Santa Cruz Island when they heard pounding on their boat.
“I put on some shorts and walked outside and opened the door, and here’s five guys in a little rubber boat and a 75-foot commercial boat on fire,” Hansen told the Daily Beast. “It was really on fire … the whole thing engulfed in flames.
“The flames were shooting up 25 feet. I felt so helpless. It’s just burning. There were five tanks that were blowing up — or we thought there were — these big pops.”
Hansen brought the five crew members on board and radioed the Coast Guard.
Santa Cruz Island is part of Santa Barbara County, so presumably any fatalities would be under the jurisdiction of the county sheriff’s Coroner’s Bureau.
However, according to Eliason, a mass-casualty incident of this magnitude is beyond the resources of the local coroner, and assistance has been requested from Los Angeles County, Raney said.
Any bodies recovered from the boat will be brought to the Coroner’s Bureau in Santa Barbara, Raney said, adding that portable storage containers for remains have been requested from Los Angeles County.
“The coroner’s investigation is going to be a big part of what we do,” he added.
Raney said the county was activating its Emergency Operations Center and will be staffing information phone lines.
The American Red Cross of Central California announced it is opening an assistance center for the families of those aboard the boat at Earl Warren Showgrounds, 3400 Calle Real in Santa Barbara.
Families seeking information also can call 1.833.688.5551.
Check back with Noozhawk for updates to this story.
— Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.