At least eight people were killed in a fire on a cruise ship off the coast of California. 26 passengers would still be missing, said US Sheriff Bill Brown on Monday. Five people were able to save themselves. There is little hope that survivors will be found.

The bodies of two men and two women had been recovered. Four more bodies would have found the search teams at the bottom of the ocean near the shipwreck, but could not land yet, Brown said. The search for the missing passengers would continue until Tuesday morning through the night, said Monica Rochester of the Coast Guard. She spoke of a "very tragic incident". One would prepare for the worst.

How many people were on board was not clear at first. The Coast Guard reported the number partly with 38 people, including five crew members. Then it was also said that there were 39 people, including six crew members. Five members of the crew, who were already on deck early in the morning, escaped the flames by jumping into the sea. You could reach a boat nearby. The police heard the survivors on Monday but did not provide any details.

The passengers of the excursion ship slept inside the boat when the fire broke out for unknown reasons before dawn. Numerous fireboats had hurried to the crash site. The burning ship had sunk during the firefighting about 20 meters off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, it said. The island belongs to the National Park Channel Islands, the destination of the dive excursion. The almost 40-meter-long boat anchored off the island, where the water was only about 20 meters deep.

Dramatic photos showed the chariot completely surrounded by flames. Shortly after three o'clock in the morning, an emergency call was received from the ship at the Coast Guard. Heavy fog in the region made the deployment of the rescue teams more difficult, they said.

The owners of a nearby boat, Bob and Shirley Hansen, told the New York Times newspaper that they woke up at 3:30 am with a knocking sound and discovered the frightened crew members. These would have used an inflatable boat to escape, and only worn underwear. They told the couple that they had fled when a fire got out of control. The other boat had burned completely at this time.

"I could see the fire hitting holes in the side of the boat, there were always these explosions, you can not prepare for that, it was awful," Bob Hansen told the newspaper. Two crewmembers returned to the ship to search for survivors. "The fire was too big, there was absolutely nothing we could do," he added.

Cause of the fire is not yet clear

The cause of the fire was initially unclear. Coast Guard records show that inspections of the boat in February and August 2018 showed no deficiencies. Previously there had been violations of fire safety, but these shortcomings were quickly resolved.

According to a diver who has often been on dive trips with this and other boats of the operator, the boat is very safe. The fleet is one of the safest and best maintained he has ever seen, said Dave Reid, who runs an underwater camera business with his wife. The boat operator Truth Aquatics from Santa Monica have flawless boats and the crew is first class. However, Reid also said that all divers slept at the lowest level, and that it would probably be difficult to escape through the narrow staircase when a fire broke out at the top.

When asked if the crew helped the passengers, the Coast Guard said they had no further information. The boat called "Conception" had started from the coastal town of Santa Barbara for a scuba diving trip on the long holiday weekend, as the broadcaster KTLA reported. It was supposed to have re-entered the port on Labor Day on Tuesday night. The Channel Islands off Santa Barbara are a popular destination for divers and sailors.

California - Numerous missing persons after the sinking of a burning ship Off the coast of California, a tourist ship has caught fire and sunk. Five crew members were rescued. But many people are still missing. © Photo: Santa Barbara County Fire Department / dpa