Eight people are dead and 26 more missing as authorities warn families to prepare for the worst after a diving boat on a Labor Day trip erupted in flames early Monday.
The 75-foot Conception was some 20 yards off the northern coast of Santa Cruz Island, itself some 20 miles east of Southern California, when the fire was reported shortly after 3 a.m.
The Coast Guard and local fire departments responded but the boat — ravaged by the fire — sank into the water later Monday, officials said. Just five people, all crew members, were found alive so far.
A total of 39 people were on board, six crew members and 33 passengers, Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said at a news conference late Monday.
So far four bodies belonging to two adult men and two adult women had been recovered. Four more bodies were spotted on the seafloor, where the boat sank as fire crews tried to put out the blaze.
“We will search all the way through the night and into the morning but I think we should be prepared to move into the worst outcome,” Capt. Rochester warned.
The survivors were the only ones awake when the blaze broke out while the passengers were asleep below deck.
“You couldn’t have asked for a worse scenario,” Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters Monday.
The five crew members were able to paddle in a dinghy to a nearby boat, according to the Los Angeles Times. Authorities initially said one of the surviving crew had minor injuries. But Shirley Hansen, the woman who rescued them in her boat with her husband, told the Times that two crew members had leg injuries.
Bob Hansen, Shirley’s husband, told The New York Times that their boat was about 300 feet from the Conception.
“When we looked out, the other boat was totally engulfed in flames, from stem to stern,” he 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.”
Though some of the rescued crew went back out in the water looking for more survivors, “they came back and said there was no one,” Shirley told the L.A. Times.
“The fire was too big, there was absolutely nothing we could do. You never anticipate something like this. We just felt so helpless,” her husband told the New York Times.
Audio of the initial mayday call recorded a man saying, “I can’t breathe,” according to the L.A. Times.
“Can you get back onboard and unlock the boat?” the dispatcher asked at one point, CNN reported.
“You don’t have any firefighting gear at all? No fire extinguishers or anything?” the dispatcher asked, but the man’s responses are not audible.
Photos from the scene show the boat blackened and hollowed out, the hull seemingly burned through, after the flames were extinguished.
The cause of the fire and additional information about the total number of victims and their identities was not immediately available.
The Conception had been on a three-day Labor Day diving cruise at the time of the fire, according to the website for a local excursion company.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it will investigate.
The Coast Guard spokeswoman reportedly said Monday that the Conception “has been in full compliance” and “we are working deliberately with the vessel owner-operator who is with us at the time.” Truth Aquatics, which owns the Conception, could not be immediately be reached by PEOPLE. Representatives from the company declined to comment to other news outlets.