33 Dead, 1 Missing in CA Boat Fire
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) -- Only one person remained missing Wednesday after searchers recovered 33 bodies from the charred underwater wreckage of a dive boat that caught fire off the Southern California coast and sank on Labor Day.
Among the victims were an engineer for Apple who went on the trip with his wife and daughter to celebrate the teen's 17th birthday, a special effects designer for Disney, a nature photographer, a nurse and a physics teacher from Northern California who was with his 26-year-old daughter.
Five crew members, including the captain, managed to escape the Conception after Monday's pre-dawn fire that engulfed the boat 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.
The only crewmember to die was 26-year-old Allie Kurtz, who quit her corporate job at Paramount Pictures to work on dive boats and had recently been promoted to deckhand on the Conception.
She was sleeping with the other divers below deck when flames moved quickly through the 75-foot (23-meter) vessel, blocking a narrow stairway and an escape hatch leading to the upper decks.
DNA will be needed to identify the victims. Authorities will use 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.
Apple engineer Steve Salika and his wife, Diana Adamic, went on the trip with their daughter Tia Salika to celebrate the teen's 17th birthday, company senior vice president Deirdre O'Brien told The Mercury News newspaper. Apple colleague, Dan Garcia joined them.
Tia was a student at Pacific Collegiate Charter School, a high-performing school serving grades seven to 12 in Santa Cruz. Also with her was a fellow student Berenice Felipe, according to a letter sent to the school community obtained by NBC News.
O'Brien said in a statement that Salika's "energy and enthusiasm touched so many people across our company " during his 30-year career there, and that Garcia "was as passionate about his job at Apple as he was about his love of diving. Both leave many friends behind and will be deeply missed."
Adamic volunteered at the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter, as did Tia and Berenice, Jen Walker, a former humane educator at the animal shelter, told the Los Angeles Times in a statement.
Adamic "was an ally to all living things — orphan kittens, wild birds, youth volunteers — and a champion for the natural world around us," Walker said.
Another diver aboard was visual effects designer Charles McIlvain, who was known for his work on films such as "Spider-Man" and "Green Lantern."
His wife, Jasmine Lord, said in a family statement that he was with their close friend Marybeth Guiney, who was also the couple's neighbor in Santa Monica.
Both lived their lives to the fullest, according to the statement.
"His laugh was the greatest and his smile could light up the dark," the family said in a statement. "He embraced life with exceptional joy, openness and humor, and all who knew him felt that warmth."
McIlvain worked as a visual effects designer for Walt Disney Imagineering and a pipeline engineer and technical animation supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks. He also worked for Netflix.
Another passenger was Lisa Fiedler, a 52-year-old hairdresser and photographer from the community of Mill Valley north of San Francisco, her mother, Nancy Fiedler, told San Francisco's ABC affiliate, KGO television.
"Everybody loved her," her mother said.
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 in Stockton, where her father and Sison had worked, and her sister Angela was a Stockton science middle school teacher while Nicole worked at a restaurant in Coronado, near San Diego.
"Everybody's devastated," said Dominic Selga, Sison's ex-husband.
The fire started 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.
Those aboard 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, was there too with his 26-year-old daughter, said Brian Killgore, a spokesman for the Fremont Unified School District.
"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.
Other divers who died were an Arizona couple, Patricia Beitzinger and Neal Baltz, according to ABC affiliate KNXV-TV in Phoenix. "They went to heaven doing something they loved together," Neal's father, John Baltz, told the television station.
Baltz was an engineer for a Phoenix semiconductor company whose hobby was winemaking and he enrolled in an enology program at a community college in the Verde Valley wine region, working in vineyards and cellars, the Los Angeles Times reported.
After finishing the program, he endowed a scholarship for the school.
"He's one of those people who was an absolute pleasure to know," Michael Pierce, director of enology and viticulture at the Southwest Wine Center, told the paper. "He went through life with joy."
Baltz and his longtime girlfriend lived in the Ahwatukee Foothills in southern Phoenix. They had dived in the Caribbean and elsewhere.
"He loved so many things," Pierce said. "He loved the ocean, he loved his dogs, he loved Patricia. We are a small community. It's a huge loss for us."
Kristy Finstad, a marine biologist and co-owner of Worldwide Diving Adventures in Santa Cruz, was leading the scuba tour and had done hundreds of dives in the Channel Islands, according to her company's website.
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. Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board said she met with families for two hours Wednesday.
She said the probe's findings are expected in 12 to 18 months. Four of five crew members tested negative for alcohol. The other crew member was injured and on the way to the hospital and could not be tested, Homendy said. Authorities are awaiting the results of drug tests.