All 33 passengers presumed dead after horrific California boat fire, Coast Guard says – USA TODAY
At least four people were killed and dozens remained missing after a dive boat fire in southern California.
Harrison Hill, USA TODAY
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – All 33 passengers and one crew member are assumed dead after a tragic boat fire early Monday that occurred in open water off the California coast.
Authorities reported in a press conference Tuesday that the remains of 20 victims had been recovered, including 11 females and 9 males. Fourteen victims remain missing. Approximately four to six bodies were discovered in the wreckage but were unable to be recovered by nightfall.
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester announced the Coast Guard was suspending search efforts, as “no additional signs of distress or debris has been witnessed.” Rochester said the nearly 24-hour search operation included seven missions and three helicopters crews, covering an area of 160 miles.
The boat had six crew members and the 33 passengers when it went up in flames during a recreational scuba diving trip. The passengers and one crew member were assigned to bunk-beds on the bottom of the deck. Five crew members sleeping on the top deck jumped off and took a dinghy to safety. Two had minor injuries.
The crew members took their dinghy to a private fishing boat, The Grape Escape, that was anchored near the north shore of Santa Cruz Island. The boat’s owners said two of the crew members went back to look for survivors but found no one.
Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the fire. Authorities said Tuesday that there was no indication that an explosion had occurred. Passengers were unable to get out because both the main stairwell and escape hatch were likely blocked by fire. It is unclear if passengers were actually asleep when they perished, Rochester said.
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Rochester said the boat was equipped with a fixed firefighting system, as well as various portable extinguishers. She could not immediately confirm when the system was last tested.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said the victims range from teenagers to senior citizens. A majority appear to be from the Santa Cruz region.
Authorities had not confirmed the victims’ cause of death, and autopsies were underway. Brown said that many, if not all, of the victims will need to be identified through DNA analysis. Investigators will be coordinating with family members to collect DNA samples for comparison purposes.
“The devastating impact on so many families and so many people in this community is evident. That is certainly very troubling,” Brown said.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said, “You couldn’t ask for a worse situation” than that of the deadly dive boat fire near Santa Cruz Island.
Brown said the boat was upside down in relatively shallow water with receding tides that were moving the vessel around. A 3,000-foot temporary flight restriction was established around it. Authorities said it was under discussion whether to tow the vessel to shore or examine it on site.
Authorities opened a Family Assistance Center at the Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara for the families of victims. In addition to various information and emotional support resources, the center is also offering DNA swabbing for families who believe their relatives are still missing, according to public information officer Amber Anderson.
Authorities responded Monday to a 3:30 a.m. mayday call of a boat in flames off Santa Cruz Island, about 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles, the Coast Guard said at a news conference later that day.
“The call was garbled, it was not that clear, but we were able to get some information out of it to send vessels,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney.
Coast Guard crews, the Ventura County and Santa Barbara County fire departments, and Vessel Assist responded to the call regarding the 75-foot commercial diving vessel called Conception and operated by Truth Aquatics out of Santa Barbara Harbor.
The boat had been anchored in an area called Platts Harbor at Santa Cruz Island, part of the five-island Channel Islands National Park and technically a part of Santa Barbara County.
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Truth Aquatics, a Santa Barbara-based company, was founded in 1974. It had been chartered by Worldwide Diving Adventures, which says on its website that it has been taking divers on such expeditions since the 1970s.
Glen Fritzler, owner of Truth Aquatics, could not be reached for comment.
Mourning the victims
The names of the passengers on the boat were not available as of Tuesday. Truth Aquatics said the list of all the people aboard was in the hands of the Coast Guard.
Authorities said Monday afternoon they were still working to notify next of kin of those who died. Four families had not yet been connected with investigators as of Tuesday.
At least two students and their parents, who may have been aboard during the incident, were reportedly from Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz, according to KCBSTV.
“Our hearts and prayers are with the families of the victims and those yet missing, particularly those of our students,” Head of School Maria C. Reitano said in a statement sent to the Salinas Californian. “Right now, our priority as a school community is to support our students, staff, and families.”
Kristy Finstad, a 41-year-old marine biologist, was among the victims of the fire, according to a Monday Facebook post by her brother, Brett Harmeling.
“Please pray for my sister Kristy!! She was leading a dive trip on this boat,” Harmeling said in the post.
Harmeling made a second post Tuesday, saying “Thank You ALL for your unconditional love and support during this incredibly tragic time.” He added that “It is likely she has transitioned to be with the good Lord.”
Finstad co-owned the Worldwide Diving Adventures company, which chartered the Conception for a diving expedition. She had lived in Santa Cruz with her husband, who was not on the boat.
Former neighbors struggled to process the news on Tuesday.
“They were very nice people,” said Luana Pedota, who lived just one building down from Finstad and her husband at an apartment complex.
Pedota added that they were very outgoing and “outdoorsy.” Finstad was on the homeowners association, and, at one point, Finstad helped get bike racks for the apartment complex.
Another neighbor, Martha McNulty said Finstad helped her sell her dry suit after McNulty stopped diving and also helped with the redesign of a garden in the area.
“They were so close and their life dreams were in sync,” McNulty said of Finstad and her husband.
Susana Solano Rosas, a resident of Northern California, said in a Facebook post Tuesday that she had lost three of her daughters, as well as her ex-husband and his wife.
“It is with a broken heart … 3 of our daughters were on this boat. As of now they are still missing,” Rosas said in the post.
KCRA-TV reported that Evan Quitasol, a nurse, Angela Rose Solano Quitasol, a seventh-grade teacher, and Nicole Storm Solano Quitasol all perished in the fire with their father, Michael Quitasol, and his wife, Fernisa Sison.
Friends started an online support page for the victims’ family.
Rosas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A spontaneous memorial for the victims popped up at Santa Barbara Harbor Tuesday. Jennifer Stafford came to the seaside memorial with heart-shaped pins and flowers to tie to the wharf. The longtime Santa Barbara woman said she wanted to find a way to help.
“I just brought them along to see if I could give them to family members so they would have a touchstone,” she said, after hugging a woman who said she had a family member who was still missing. The woman wore one of Stafford’s pins.
Stafford said one man had a fallen to his knees sobbing at the memorial, where flowers, leis and candles had been left. A pair of flippers hung from a post with the words “We love you Conception” written on them.
“People are in shock,” Stafford said. “If they lost a family member or best friend or coworker … it’s shocking and it’s so sad.”
A history of lawsuits
Truth Aquatics Inc. has been named in at least a dozen civil lawsuits filed in Santa Barbara County Superior Court dating back to the 1980s.
The Ventura County Star was able to view some of the cases Tuesday. Older cases were not immediately available.
The company was sued in June 2017 over injuries a kayak guide claimed he suffered while loading the equipment onto a company boat named “Truth,” according to the complaint.
Attorneys for Truth Aquatics denied the man’s claims. The case was settled out of court, according to records, and a request to dismiss the case was filed in July 2018.
The terms of the settlement were unclear.
Similar claims were made in a case filed in March 2010 by a man identified as a seaman for boats owned and operated by Truth Aquatics.
Court documents do not make clear on which boat the alleged incident happened or what led to the personal injury claim. The complaint mentions a railing that was allegedly damaged or deteriorated. The man claimed Truth Aquatics failed to warn him about the railing or to fix it, documents show.
Truth Aquatics again denied the claims.
The case went to mediation and a request for dismissal was filed in January 2011.
A labor lawsuit was brought against Truth Aquatics by a former employee in October 2016.
It was filed as a class-action lawsuit that claimed, among other things, that Truth Aquatics failed to pay for meal periods, pay all regular wages, pay minimum wage, provide a day of rest and pay wages at time of termination, the filing states.
The employee worked for the company from April 2014 to August 2016, documents show.
Attorneys for Truth Aquatics submitted a general denial to all labor claims.
A settlement was reached in the case, which the court certified as a class-action lawsuit as part of the agreement. Additional details of the settlement are unclear.
Rodriguez reported out of McLean, Virginia. Hauck reported out of Chicago. Contributing: Cheri Carlson, Gretchen Wenner and Megan Diskin, Ventura County (California) Star; The Associated Press.