Santa Barbara (California): Eight people dead and more than 20 people were missing on Monday (September 2) after a scuba diving boat caught fire and sank off the California coast, with passengers trapped below the deck.

Fire crews in helicopters, small boats and a Coast Guard cutter battled the fire on the 75-foot (23-meter) boat called Conception, which had been on a diving excursion around Santa Cruz Island, just west of Santa Barbara in southern California.

Unfortunately, the blaze and intense heat prevented them from breaching the vessel's hull to search for survivors before the craft sank, the Coast Guard said.

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A dense fog further complicated rescue efforts. "Four victims have been recovered thus far as deceased," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told a news agency.

"Rescue and recovery efforts on the scene have located an additional four victims on the ocean floor in close proximity to the vessel," Brown said, adding that 26 people are missing.

Five Conception crew members were awake and jumped into the water when flames burst out around 3:15 am, Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester said, putting the total number of people aboard the boat at 39.

A Coast Guard operator asked the man if the passengers can get off the boat and if the crew has fire extinguishers, but the response was inaudible.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Glen Fritzler, listed as the owner of the Truth Aquatics website, was a respected professional who only a few months ago received the California Scuba Service Award. 

The Truth Aquatics website said the Conception, listed as having bunks for up to 46 people, had been scheduled to return on Monday from a three-day trip after visiting several diving spots around Santa Cruz Island.