Divers were scouring for bodies in the wreckage of a scuba diving boat off California on Tuesday, after a fast-moving fire trapped dozens of people below deck, sparking a panicked rescue call from a man gasping, ‘I can't breathe.’

Emergency crews found at least 25 bodies after the fire broke out before dawn off Santa Cruz Island on Monday, leaving nine people still missing, the Associated Press reported.

Five of the six-person crew who were above deck on the bridge managed to escape in an inflatable boat.

The Coast Guard declined to confirm the figures as authorities launched an investigation into one of the area's worst maritime disasters.

‘We are looking for bodies now,’ said Santa Barbara Fire Department spokeswoman Amber Anderson.

Officials said there were a total of 33 passengers and six crew members on board the 75-foot (23 m) Conception when the fire started at about 3:15 a.m. on Monday.

The vessel sank on Monday morning and was lying upside down under more than 60 feet (18 meters) of water, police said.

In a recording of a desperate call to the Coast Guard, a man is heard gasping for help in the smoky fire.

‘Mayday, mayday, mayday!’ he said.

‘That's a distress, this is the Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles on channel 1-6, what is your position ... and number of persons on board? Over,’ the dispatcher answered.

‘Twenty-nine. Twenty-nine POB,’ said the man in the somewhat inaudible call. ‘I can't breathe!... Twenty-nine POB.’

The dispatcher requested the GPS location of the vessel at least two more times but the caller apparently fails to respond.

Kristy Finstad, 41, was leading the dive trip on the Conception, according to a Facebook post shared on Monday by her brother, Brett Harmeling. In another post on Tuesday morning, Harmeling said there was ‘no final word’ on her fate, but that she had ‘likely transitioned to be with the good Lord.’

Finstad, a scuba diving instructor and marine biologist, was one of the owners of Worldwide Diving Adventures, the firm that chartered the boat for a three-day excursion to the Channel Islands.

Witnesses reported hearing a number of explosions, but authorities said it was too early to say what caused the fire. Scuba or propane tanks on the boat may have blown up in the flames, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said on Monday.

The federal National Transportation Safety Board said it had sent a team of engineers and fire specialists to investigate the blaze.

The boat's owner, Truth Aquatics, referred queries about the accident to a joint media center. ‘This is still an ongoing search and rescue,’ it said.

Attorney Todd Lochner of the Lochner Law firm in Annapolis, Maryland, who specializes in boating law, said that ships' crews face limited legal responsibilities to rescue passengers.

‘There is no obligation to stand on the vessel and burn to death,’ Lochner said. ‘That's a romantic idea, perhaps of the days of old, that the captain has to go down with the ship.’

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