by Kimberly Rivers

*Scroll down for updated info including names released of victims and identified remains. 

As of press deadline, the remains of 33 people have been recovered and the search continues for the final victim following a tragic fire that occurred aboard a 75-foot chartered diving boat in the predawn hours of Monday, Sept. 2. At the time of the fire the vessel was anchored 20 yards off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, about 35 miles from the Oxnard coast.

Five crew members, the only survivors of the incident, were sleeping above deck and leapt into the ocean to escape the burning vessel. The cause and origin of the fire is under investigation

There were 39 people aboard Conception, a commercial diving boat, when it left Santa Barbara Harbor early in the morning of Saturday, Aug. 31, en route to the Channel Islands for a weekend of diving.

Crews battle the blaze after a mayday call at about 3:15 a.m. Monday, Sept 2. Photo: Ventura County Fire Department.

At approximately 3:15 a.m. on Monday morning, the Coast Guard, Sector Los Angeles, heard a mayday call on radio channel 16 about a boat engulfed in flames at Santa Cruz Island. By the time response crews arrived, Grape Escape, a privately owned boat that had been in the area, had rescued five people from the water. People aboard Grape Escape reported hearing explosions; officials have speculated that these were caused by diving or propane tanks.

Response teams set to work fighting the fire of the now fully engulfed vessel. The boat sank in 64 feet of water while fire crews battled the blaze.

Dive teams from Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties responded and coordinated search and rescue efforts for 24 hours after the fire. They would ultimately search a 160-square-mile area for survivors. The remains of 20 people were located, recovered and transferred to the Santa Barbara County Coroner’s office. Eleven have been identified as female; nine, male. No other information has been released about the victims. Divers saw additional remains of an estimated four to six people, “still trapped in the wreckage,” said Bill Brown, Santa Barbara County Sheriff, during a press conference on Tuesday morning.

“Our hearts go out to all of the victims’ families having to endure this terrible process as we work to recover their loved ones,” said Brown. “I realize the information I’m about to convey is difficult and painful.”

Brown then reported that all agencies were transitioning to recovery and investigation, ending the search and rescue procedures. A half-mile debris field has been established on the ocean floor, taking into account tide and water movement, which will also be vital in the investigation phase.

Search area during rescue and recovery effort. U.S. Coast Guard image.

He said on Tuesday that efforts would focus on working to “stabilize the boat” so that divers can “safely enter and search” for more remains. “Ongoing efforts to recover victims and evidence is taxing and dangerous.”

Officials with the coroner’s office are already working with families to identify victims, but DNA analysis is required because of the state of the remains. Brown said the remains were severely impacted by the fire and DNA will be the only way to confirm identity. Thirty families have contacted officials so far. Brown said they must confirm identity and cannot just rely on the passenger lists. Family members, preferably a parent or sibling of the victim, can donate samples of saliva, taken with a swab, for analysis. Brown said that in cases like this, a rapid response DNA analysis takes place.

The vessel Conception is owned by Truth Aquatics, a well-known Santa Barbara-based commercial diving boat business. The vessel was chartered by Worldwide Diving Adventures, owned by Santa Cruz residents Dan Chua and Kristy Finstad. Finstad, a marine biologist, avid sailor and diving instructor, was aboard Conception, and is unaccounted for. Chua was not on board.

Teams deployed to the scene in response to the fire included two 45-foot response boats with medium crews from the Coast Guard Station, Channel Islands Harbor; a Dolphin MH-65 helicopter crew from Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco Forward Operating Base Mugu; a MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew and the Coast Guard Cutter Narwhal, both from Coast Guard Air Station San Diego. Ventura County Fire Department was also one of the first responders.

The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation into what caused the fire.

Officials and those familiar with diving boat operations say it is typical for crew members to sleep on the top deck, while passengers sleep below in berths. Brown said that while the investigation is ongoing it appears that both pathways out of the passenger sleeping area — a stairway and an escape hatch — were blocked by the fire, making it impossible for the passengers to escape. It is still unclear if the passengers were sleeping or awake during the fire and sinking of the vessel. As of press deadline, official cause of death has not yet been reported.

“Santa Barbara County Fire Department is committed to expending all necessary means to find out the cause and origin of the fire aboard this vessel,” said Chief Mark Hartwig of the Santa Barbara Fire Department, which has jurisdiction over the incident.

“Vessels like this are required to have smoke detectors in all berthing areas,” said Captain Monica Rochester with United States Coast Guard. She emphasized that records show Conception was in full compliance with all rules and regulations at the latest required inspection, which also checks for stationary and mobile firefighting equipment.

So far the surviving crew members have provided written statements and will be interviewed as part of the early phases of the investigation.

Due to the high number of fatalities, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office is offering assistance and has provided a mobile cooler and additional personnel.

A support center for families, friends and responders has been set up at Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara. “It is important to recognize . . . some people will never forget today,” said Suzanne Grimmesey, chief quality care and strategy officer with Santa Barbara County Behavioral Wellness. The center creates a safe place where those impacted by the event can “join with others sharing the same loss.”  

Click HERE to see Coast Guard video of crews fighting the blaze aboard Conception. 

UPDATE: Sept. 5, 2019 : County of Santa Barbara has announced a community vigil will take place on Friday, Sept. 6, 6:30-7:30 p.m. at Chase Palm Park, 323 E. Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara. Attendees are asked to bring blankets and/or chairs. 

“We recognize this tragedy has affected so many from within the community and throughout the world,” said Suzanne Grimmesey, chief quality care and strategy officer, County of Santa Barbara Behavioral Wellness Department. “This vigil is an important time for many to come together to grieve and heal.” 

UPDATE: Sept. 6, 2019, 4:35 p.m.: The Santa Barbara Sheriff and Coroner’s office has released the following information regarding the victims: 

At the 10:00 AM press conference on Sept 6., the Sheriff announced that the families of the following victims had been notified:

Raymond “Scott” Chan, 59, Male from Los Altos, CA

Justin Carroll Dignam,  58, Male from Anaheim, CA

Daniel Garcia, 46, Male from Berkeley, CA

Marybeth Guiney, 51, Female from Santa Monica, CA

Yulia Krashennaya, 40, Female from Berkeley, CA

Alexandra Kurtz, 26, Female from Santa Barbara, CA

Caroline McLaughlin, 35, Female from Oakland, CA

Ted Strom, 62, Male from Germantown, TN

Wei Tan, 26, Female from Goleta, CA    

Since the 10:00 AM press conference, these additional positive identifications and notifications have been made:

Kendra Chan, 26, Female from Oxnard, CA

Angela Rose Quitasol, 28, Female from Stockton, CA

Evan Michel Quitasol, 37, Female from Stockton, CA

Nicole Storm Quitasol, 31, Female from Imperial Beach, CA

Michael Quitasol, 62, Male from Stockton, CA

Carol Diana Adamic, 60, Female from Santa Cruz, CA

Andrew Fritz, 40, Male from Sacramento, CA

Charles McIlvain, 44, Male from Santa Monica, CA

Steven Salika, 55, Male from Santa Cruz, CA

Tia Salika-Adamic, 17, Female from Santa Cruz, CA

Neal Gustav Baltz, 42, Male from Pheonix, AZ

Patricia Ann Beitzinger, 48, Female from Chandler, AZ

Vaidehi Campbell, 41, Female from Felton, CA

UPDATE: Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2:57 p.m. : 

The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department and Coroner has confirmed the identities of five additional victims of the Conception fire. The remains of 27 of the victims have now been positively identified. Rapid DNA technology has been used to facilitate a quick turn around. Newly acquired family DNA samples are in route to the Coroner’s office in the hopes of confirming the identity of the six victims whose remains are with the Coroner’s office. Those final identifications are expected later this week. 

Search and recovery efforts continue for the final victim, whose remains have not yet been recovered. 

The additional victims have been identified as:

 

Adrian Dahood-Fritz,  40 years old, Female from Sacramento, CA

Lisa Fiedler, 52 years old, Female from Mill Valley, CA

Kristina “Kristy” Finstad, 41 years old, Female from Tamrick Pines, CA

Fernisa Sison, 57 years old, Female from Stockton, CA

Kristian Takvam, 34 years old,  Male from San Francisco, CA