34 presumed dead in California boat fire, search suspended

Thirty four people are presumed dead in the California dive boat fire and the search has been suspended.

Santa Barbara County Bill Brown said Tuesday that the bodies of 20 victims have been recovered and divers have seen between and four and six others in the sunken wreckage, which must be stabilized.

Brown says the recovered remains include 11 females and nine males and DNA will be used to identify them.

Thirty-nine people including six crew members were aboard the vessel Conception when it caught fire early Monday morning while anchored off Santa Cruz Island.

Five crew members jumped in the ocean and were rescued.

The dozens of passengers aboard the dive boat included a 41-year-old marine biologist with years of diving experience.

Kristy Finstad has been identified by her brother Brett Harmeling of Houston as among those aboard.

Harmeling says in a Facebook post that his sister was leading the dive trip and he asks for prayers.

Harmeling described his sister to the Los Angeles Times as extremely strong-willed and adventurous.

The 75-foot (23 meters) Conception was on a three-day excursion to the chain of rugged, wind-swept isles that form Channel Islands National Park in the Pacific Ocean. The fire broke out around 3 a.m. in Platt's Harbor off Santa Cruz Island.

The five crew members who escaped took refuge on a boat called The Grape Escape, anchored nearby. Two had minor injuries, Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney said.

The Grape Escape's owners, Bob and Shirley Hansen, told The New York Times they were asleep when they heard pounding on the side of their 60-foot (18-meter) fishing vessel about 3:30 a.m. and discovered the frightened crew members. They told the couple they fled when the fire grew out of control.

"When we looked out, the other boat was totally engulfed in flames, from stem to stern," Hansen said, estimating it was no more than 100 yards (91 meters) from his craft. "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.

"The fire was too big, there was absolutely nothing we could do," he added.