A boat fire off Santa Cruz Island that left 25 people dead and nine missing sent shockwaves throughout the diving community and across California. Residents and divers said a tragedy of such scale seemed unimaginable.

The diving tour boat erupted in flames along the coast of Santa Barbara at around 3.15am on Monday and ultimately sank. Five crew members escaped and were rescued but 33 passengers and another crew member were found dead or were still missing, with little hope of good news.

“I’m speechless. We are all thinking that could’ve been us,” said Ralph Clevenger, a Santa Barbara photographer and diver who has taken photos for Truth Aquatics, the local company that owns the 75ft boat.

“I was trying to recall in the world an event of this scale in the industry. I can’t think of anything. The death toll is just unheard of. This is a complete shock.”

Law enforcement officials released minimal information, saying those killed came from across California and that DNA testing would likely be needed to identify some of the bodies.

Nyx Cangemi, a US coast guard official, told the Guardian late on Monday authorities had recovered 20 bodies and five had been seen inside the boat but were not immediately reachable.

The US Coast Guard on Tuesday suspended the search, after seven missions with helicopter crews over roughly 24 hours failed to detect signs of any additional people.

It is presumed that the nine remaining people have also died, Capt Monica Rochester told reporters.

Authorities said it was likely the passengers had all been asleep, in tight quarters below deck, when the disaster struck and that it appeared they became trapped by the fire. “This is probably the worst-case scenario,” said the Santa Barbara county sheriff, Bill Brown.

The burned out boat Conception off the north side of Santa Cruz Island on Monday.

The burned out boat Conception off the north side of Santa Cruz Island on Monday. Photograph: Ventura county fire department Handout/EPA

Of the 20 bodies that have been recovered and removed from the scene, there were 11 female victims and nine male victims, he said.

One of the crew members who survived was the captain, the sheriff said. The victims included a 17-year-old and people in their 60s, and many were from the Santa Cruz and San Jose area in northern California, he said.

Thirty families have been in contact with the sheriff’s office, while relatives of four others have not yet connected with investigators.

Family members identified one of the missing as Kristy Finstad, a 41-year-old marine biologist who was leading the three-day Labor Day weekend diving expedition on the boat, the Conception.

“She’s so enthusiastic, and she shared that, and I always learned something from her,” said Cathy Corbett, a longtime diver who has been on numerous Truth Aquatics trips led by Finstad. Corbett recalled meeting her for the first time about four years ago: “She had this smiley face and bright eyes … it was one of the best dive weekends I’ve ever had. It’s just such a huge, profound loss in our diving community.”

Finstad was dedicated to teaching participants about science, she added: “Kristy took it to a whole different level.”

A couple who helped rescue survivors told reporters the crew members who escaped were injured and distraught. One talked about celebrating a 17-year-old girl’s birthday hours before the fire.

Pacific Collegiate School, a high school in Santa Cruz, said there were “students and parents” on board, but it has not said how many and has not released further details.

“This is such a small community, and I have relatives who dive,” said Orlando Aldana, a 42-year-old Santa Barbara resident who feared he might have known some of the victims. As the search went on and the body count rose, he said he was relieved that he had not received any news about friends or family.

California boat fire kills at least 25 people – video report

But the number of casualties and the way they died was tough to process, said Aldana, who came to the Santa Barbara harbor with 34 candles.

“If the boat went up in flames, you’d think they would jump in the water,” he said. “They must have been trapped. They couldn’t get to the exit.”

At a makeshift memorial, Pedro Lopez, a pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Santa Barbara, dropped off a bouquet of flowers. He said the deaths had been terrifying to many different communities.

“It’s affecting all of southern California, and certainly the community of people who use the boats,” said Lopez, a fisherman. “It hits close to home. A lot of people are worried.”

Next time he went out in a similar vessel, he said, he would think about the layout of a boat and how he would escape if he had to.

“I’ve never heard of anything like this happening,” he said.

Diving experts and participants in similar expeditions emphasized that this kind of fire appeared to be unprecedented.

Clevenger, who had been on the Conception and knows Truth Aquatics’ captains and its owner, Glen Fritzler, said crew members were well-trained professionals, some of the best in the business.

“They were incredibly serious about safety,” he said. “The owner works on the boat personally and his crews are trained so well and very impressive. That’s what makes this even more tragic.”

Investigators did not immediately share information about what might have caused the fire, but they said the boat was in compliance with all regulations and had received annual inspections.

A former Truth Aquatics crewman, James Miranda, prays and drops flowers into the water at the moorings where the boat was based in Santa Barbara, California.

A former Truth Aquatics crewman, James Miranda, prays and drops flowers into the water at the moorings where the boat was based in Santa Barbara, California. Photograph: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Gary Pilecki, a California diver whose scuba club has worked with Truth Aquatics for years, said he never had any doubts about safety.

“That’s why we keep coming back every year,” he said. “They have an excellent safety record.”

Pilecki said divers did not typically worry about fires and were more concerned with the potential for currents to sweep them out to sea, decompression sickness while diving and shipwrecks.

“Fires are the last thing on my mind on those boats,” he said. “We have no idea how this could have happened.”

Corbett, a diver with 30 years experience who went on a Truth Aquatics trip earlier this year and was scheduled for another expedition this fall, said she thought of the company as the “pinnacle” of safety in the industry and said the crew operated as a “very well-oiled machine”.

“This was a catastrophic, extremely rare accident,” she said, adding: “Divers have this common love of adventure, knowing it comes with some risk … This hits so very close to home for all of us.”


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