High school students, a science teacher and his daughter, an adventurous marine biologist and a family of five celebrating a birthday are among the victims of a fire that tore through a scuba diving boat off Southern California’s coast, trapping dozens of sleeping people below deck. Authorities said on Sept. 4 that the bodies of 33 of the 34 presumed dead had been recovered.
The new count of confirmed deaths came after officials recovered 13 bodies on Tuesday, said Coast Guard Lt. Zach Farrell, a spokesman for the inter-agency joint information center in Santa Barbara representing local, county, state and federal officials involved in the case.
Five crew members, including the captain, managed to escape after Monday’s pre-dawn fire that engulfed the boat named Conception as the victims slept below decks near the island of Santa Cruz during a three-day scuba diving excursion. The vessel eventually sank and overturned, making the recovery of bodies challenging.
But flames moved so quickly through the 75-foot vessel that it blocked both a narrow stairway and an escape hatch leading to the upper decks, giving those below virtually no chance of escaping, authorities said.
DNA will be needed to identify all the victims, and authorities will be using the same rapid analysis tool that identified victims of the deadly wildfire that devastated the Northern California town of Paradise last year, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.
Brown said he had heard anecdotally that those who died ranged from teenagers to people in their 60s. He said most appear to have been from Northern California, including Santa Cruz, San Jose and the San Francisco Bay Area.
A broken-hearted mother posted on her Facebook page Tuesday that her three daughters, their father, and his wife were among those presumed dead.
Susana Rosas of Stockton, California, posted that her three daughters—Evan, Nicole and Angela Quitasol—were with their father Michael Quitasol and stepmother Fernisa Sison.
Evan Quitasol was a nurse at St. Joseph’s Medical Center of Stockton, where her father and Sison had worked after attending nursing school at San Joaquin Delta College.
Sison also worked at the college teaching first-year nursing students full-time in 2005 and 2006 and later as an adjunct instructor, according to the school’s spokesman, Alex Breitler.
“Everybody’s devastated. It’s a totally unexpected thing that happened,” said Dominic Selga, Sison’s ex-husband. “What caused the fire, that’s the big question, that’s what we all want to know.”
A team from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived Tuesday to investigate the cause of the tragedy.
“I am 100% confident that our investigators will determine the cause of this fire, why it occurred, how it occurred and what is needed to prevent it from happening again,” NTSB member Jennifer Homendy told reporters.
Rosas’ husband, Chris, told the Los Angeles Times that Nicole Quitasol worked as a bartender in Coronado near San Diego and her sister, Angela, was a science teacher at a middle school in Stockton.
Nicole worked for a Coronado restaurant called Nicky Rottens. A GoFundMe page the restaurant to help the family described Nicole as “an adventurous & loving soul.”
The fire broke out shortly after 3 a.m. Monday as the boat sat anchored in Platt’s Harbor off Santa Cruz Island, among the rugged, wind-swept isles that form Channel Islands National Park in the Pacific Ocean west of Los Angeles.
Those on board included students from Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz, a public charter school for grades 7 through 12, the school said.
Scott Chan, a physics teacher at American High School in Fremont, also was aboard with his daughter, said Brian Killgore, a spokesman for the Fremont Unified School District. The district said in a statement that Chan taught Advance Placement physics classes for the past three years.
“His students knew him to be an innovative and inspiring teacher who developed a passion for physics among his students,” the district said in a statement. “His loss is a tremendous tragedy for our school district.”
Chan on his LinkedIn page described his teaching as driven by “passion and wealth of real-world experience from research laboratories, and the electronics, computer, and high-performance automotive industries.”
ABC affiliate KNXV-TV in Phoenix reported that an Arizona couple, Patricia Beitzinger and Neal Baltz, were on the trip.
“They went to heaven doing something they loved together,” Neal’s father, John Baltz, told the television station.
Also below decks was Kristy Finstad, a marine biologist and co-owner of Worldwide Diving Adventures in Santa Cruz, which chartered the boat. Finstad was leading the scuba tour.
Finstad knew the area well and had done hundreds of dives in the Channel Islands, where she first swam with her father as a toddler. She first dove with a tank off Mexico at age 9, according to her company’s website.
Finstad studied damselfish and corals in the Tahitian Islands, dove for black pearls in the French Polynesian Tuamotus Islands and counted salmonids for the city of Santa Cruz, where she lived. She also did research for the Australian Institute of Marine Science and wrote a restoration guidebook for the California Coastal Commission.
“My mission is to inspire appreciation for our underwater world,” she wrote on her company’s website.
She and her husband had just returned from sailing across the South Pacific.
Actor Rob Lowe tweeted that he had been aboard the vessel many times. Dave Reid, who runs an underwater camera manufacturing business with his wife, Terry Schuller, also has traveled on the Conception and two other boats in Truth Aquatics’ fleet and said he considered all three among the best and safest.
Schuller said the company’s crews have always been meticulous in going over safety instructions at the beginning of every trip she’s been on.
“They tell you where the life jackets are, how to put them on … the exits, where the fire extinguishers are, on every single trip,” Schuller said.
Coast Guard records show the boat’s owners quickly addressed all safety violations over the last five years.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the fire and scheduled a news conference Wednesday afternoon.
By Stefanie Dazio