Dramatic Coast Guard video shows doomed charter boat engulfed in flames

Dramatic Coast Guard aerial video of a doomed boat ablaze off the Southern California coast shows clouds of white smoke and flames engulfing the vessel as it tilts backward and begins to sink, killing 34 people.

The footage, released Wednesday, was taken from a Coast Guard helicopter responding to a Labor Day weekend rescue call from the Conception, which had caught fire early Monday off Santa Cruz Island.

The bodies of all but one of the 33 passengers and one crew member presumed dead have been recovered, authorities said Wednesday.

The captain and four crew members, who were awake on the upper decks, survived. After jumping overboard, they made it to a nearby ship in an inflatable lifeboat.

Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board said the captain and three crew members tested negative for alcohol. The fourth one was injured and on the way to the hospital and could not be tested, Homendy said. Authorities are awaiting the results of drug tests.

A fire overtakes the 79-foot Conception early Sept. 2, 2019.
A fire overtakes the 79-foot Conception early Sept. 2, 2019.

Among those presumed dead are high school students, a science teacher and his daughter, an adventurous marine biologist and a family of five celebrating a birthday.

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The boat had been chartered for a three-day diving excursion off the Channel Islands.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said most of the victims appear to have been from Northern California, including Santa Cruz, San Jose and the San Francisco Bay Area.

The video shows the deadly inferno aboard the craft as the Coast Guard chopper arrived on the scene. The entire boat – from stem to stern – is enveloped in billowing white smoke while rescue boats nearby make their way toward the stricken vessel, which eventually sank in 64 feet of water.

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Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the fire. Authorities said Tuesday that there was no indication that an explosion had occurred. But flames moved so quickly through the 75-foot vessel that it blocked both a narrow stairway and an escape hatch leading to the upper decks, giving those below virtually no chance of escaping, authorities said.

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It is unclear whether passengers were actually asleep when they died, U.S. Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester said.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office said in a release that efforts continue to locate the final missing victim and to gather information to help determine the cause of the fire.

The National Transportation Safety Board is expected to release a preliminary report of an investigation by next week.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: California boat fire: Dramatic Coast Guard video shows vessel ablaze