34 Presumed Dead after Conception Dive Boat Fire Santa Cruz Island

Conception boat fire

— Photo by the Ventura County Fire Department

Deadly Labor Day Fire Aboard Conception Dive Boat

Some Victims ID’d by Family Members, News Organizations

SANTA CRUZ ISLANDS, Calif. (Sept. 3, 2019) — As many as 34 people are presumed dead after an early morning fire broke out aboard the Conception dive boat near Santa Cruz Island on Labor Day.

Rescue workers have been combing the area since early Monday morning on September 2nd and have confirmed at least 20 of the 34 missing dead.  Most of the victims were found trapped in the cramped bunk bed sleeping quarters below deck and some were found outside the vessel, said Lee Waldron, operations division chief of the Santa Barbara City Fire Department.

At least 11 women and nine men have been recovered from the vessel, but the genders of the other 11 recovered so far have not been released. One person remains missing as of Sept. 4th.

The 75-foot commercial vessel was carrying 33 passengers and six crew members when the fire erupted trapping all passengers and one 26-year-old woman who was a crew member caught below deck. The five crew members who survived were on top of the vessel and jumped off as the fast-moving fire engulfed the vessel. They all got on a dinghy to seek help from a nearby boat.

Victim Identities

The victims aboard the boat included three groups celebrating birthdays including one for a 17-year-old. The brother of Kristy Finstad believes his sister was aboard the Conception. She is the co-owner of Worldwide Diving Adventures which chartered the dive boat for Labor Day weekend. The occupants of the boat were experiencing a recreational scuba-diving trip around Channel Islands National Park.

Others who died in the boat fire included five members of the same family celebrating the father’s birthday. A nurse identified as Evan Quitasol who worked at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Stockton and two former staff members ID’d as the victim’s father, Michael Quitasol, and stepmother, Fernisa Sison, according to KOVR.  Two others identified as Nicole Storm Quitasol, of San Diego, and Angela Rose Quitasol were Evan’s siblings. Angela Quitasol who was a science teacher at Sierra Middle School in Stockton. Two Go Fund Me pages were established to help their surviving family members with expenses related to this tragedy. This one supports the mother of Nicole Quitasol who lost her three children in the tragedy.

Raymond Scott Chan, of Los Altos, was a physics teacher at American High School in Fremont and his daughter, Kendra Chan, 26, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife office in Ventura, California.

Steve Salika, his wife Diana Adamic and their daughter Tia Salika, 17, who attended Pacific Collegiate School, were celebrating her 17th birthday. Tia was one of two students from Pacific Collegiate on board including Berenice Felipe, 16.

Lisa Fiedler, 52, of Mill Valley, worked as a hairdresser but was also known for her stunning nature photography.

Allie Kurtz, 25, had worked at Paramount Pictures, her mother told KTLA. A Go Fund Me page was established in her name.

Patricia Beitzinger and Neal Baltz, of Ahwatukee, Arizona, were also aboard the ship together.

Marybeth Guiney and Charles McIlvain, were both diving enthusiasts from Santa Monica.

Conception boat fire

— photo by the Ventura Fire Departme

Were Crew Members Who Escaped Properly Trained?

The vessel was apparently in compliance with U.S. Coast Guard regulations. At this time it’s unknown what sparked the fire, but it appears that the passengers and crew member were all asleep at the time it started. Fire officials say the remote location of the vessel and time of the day the fire broke out hampered the rescue efforts.

“This is probably the worst-case scenario you could possibly have,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.

The crew members who escaped the fire told their rescuers Bob and Shirley Hansen from the Grape Escape fishing boat that they tried to help the passengers below deck, but when they opened the galley door that leads to the area where they were sleeping below, there was so much fire that the roof tiles were on fire and falling from the ceiling. They told Hansen that there was no access for them to reach the 34 victims.

The incident is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board in conjunction with both the Santa Barbara County fire and sheriff’s departments.

Investigators have many questions as they seek to find answers for. They will review the qualifications of all the crew members who were aboard that day to see if they had proper training and certifications to operate a vessel of this size and the equipment it had for scuba divers. Did any of them have any training in fire fighting in case of an emergency? Were there enough exits and were they clearly marked? What about the fire extinguishers and emergency warning systems? It’s unknown if these were in place and functioning at this time. There were adequate lifeboats and life vests available for the passengers and crew?

Conception is Owned by Truth Aquatics Inc.

Glen Fritzler, who owns the Conception and two other larger dive boats named Truth and Vision, operates his dive boat business out of Santa Barbara Harbor.  Conception was built in Long Beach in 1981, had a wood hull and had a 550-horsepower Detroit Diesel engine that had a 1,600-gallon fuel capacity, according to Coast Guard records. The company’s website shows the Conception’s sleeping area holds up to 46 passengers in an area with 13 double beds and 20 single bunks stacked as high as three in a row.

The only way in or out of the sleeping compartment is by using either a curving staircase that leads to the galley or through an escape hatch located near the stern that was above one of the bunks underneath the salon deck that includes the galley floor.  There were reportedly fire extinguishers in the bunk area and smoke alarms with emergency lighting, according to those familiar with the vessel.

Family members seeking information about a loved one should call 833-688-5551. There is also a family assistance center located at the Earl Warren Showgrounds, 3400 Calle Real, Santa Barbara. For information, call 805-696-1188.

Top Causes of Boat Fires

Most of the time boat fires start in the engine compartments or with electrical sources such as battery wiring. On dive boats such as the Conception, there are also Nitrox and regular scuba oxygen tanks available to divers that could potentially explode if there is a spark, but they are not flammable on their own. Dive boat operators must have required certification in order to mix and fill scuba tanks holding pure oxygen.

Indeed, fire is ranked the top reason for a loss among claims made by boat owners between 2008 and 2012, according to BoatUS Marine Insurance. The engine compartment is the most likely place where a fire could start if an ignition source comes in contact with the fuel. On boats that are more than 25 years old, wiring harnesses and starters cause a disproportionate number of fires, Boat US Marine Insurance said. These electrical fires account for roughly 20 percent of all fires.

A common mistake that causes roughly 15 percent of all boat fires is other DC electrical fires including operator error. The battery cables may get reversed or they may be connected in a series when they should be parallel or visa versa. Other electrical DC causes of fire include loose battery connections, frayed battery cables, and old battery switches.

About 12 percent of boat fires are due to AC electrical fires caused by air conditioning units, microwaves, electric heaters, and other AC appliances. The source of these AC electrical fires is sometimes the use of non-marine-grade power cords. These marine-grade power cords must be used with proper adapters and replaced immediately if there is any wear on the cord or pitting on the blades of the plug. Many boats at least 10 years old catch fire at the back of the shorepower inlet where the ship’s wiring connects to the terminals.

Roughly 9 percent of boat fires are caused upon any interruption of cooling water that leads to overheating. When this happens, a blockage of the raw-water intake may lead to overheating. There are also other exhaust fires caused by impeller failures due to age or to sediment in the water.

The vessel’s voltage regulator is among the most common cause of fires on older boats and the rate of failure increases with age after it reaches 10 years old. Faulty batteries account for roughly 8 percent of all boat fires with the voltage regulator the most common cause of fire.  As with other parts of the vessel, the older the boat the greater the chance of the regulator failing and needing replacement.  

Johnson Attorneys Group does not represent any of the parties mentioned above; nor is it our intent to represent any of the parties. If you would like to contribute to this story or you have a legal question, please contact us.


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