Only 1 person remains missing from dive boat fire

Photo: AFP

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.

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.

Flames blocked escape for 34 divers on California boat

Flames roared through a boat of sleeping scuba divers so quickly that it appears none of the 34 people below deck could escape, authorities said Tuesday as they ended their search without finding anyone who was missing still alive from the Labor Day tragedy off the Southern California coast.

It's not known what started the fire early Monday aboard the Conception, which carried scuba diving enthusiasts on a three-day excursion.

It spread rapidly and flames blocked both exits out of the lower deck, where passengers and one crew member were sleeping in tight quarters, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.

The captain and four crew members awake on the upper decks jumped off the front of the vessel, swam to an inflatable boat at the back and steered it to a ship anchored nearby. Authorities have interviewed them but haven't said what efforts they made to help the 34 people trapped aboard before abandoning ship.

Twenty bodies have been pulled from the sunken vessel that had been anchored close to the shore of Santa Cruz Island, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) off the coast and northwest of Los Angeles.

Four to six other bodies have been spotted underwater, and divers are looking for the remaining people who are missing.

Among those believed to be dead are five members of one family and the marine biologist leading the diving tour.

"We're sensitive to the fact that families have gathered today, some from outside of the area, to bring their loved ones home," Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig told reporters. Those families "will rely on us to do everything in our power to find out happened aboard that vessel in the last moments of these family members' lives. That's our commitment."

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, the sheriff said.

Authorities have not released any victims' names, but Brown said he had heard anecdotally that they 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.

Susana Rosas of Stockton, California, posted on social media that her three daughters, their father and stepmother were on board.

Kristy Finstad, 41, co-owner of Worldwide Diving Adventures, which chartered the boat, was identified in a Facebook post by her brother, Brett Harmeling of Houston who asked people to pray for her.

Photos: AFP

Eight dead, 26 missing as dive boat sinks in flames off California

Eight people were dead and more than two dozen missing and feared deceased Monday after a scuba diving boat caught fire and sank off the California coast, with passengers trapped below deck by the roaring blaze.

Fire crews in helicopters, small boats and a Coast Guard cutter battled the fierce pre-dawn fire on the 75-foot (23-meter) Conception, which had been on a diving excursion around Santa Cruz Island, just west of Santa Barbara in southern California.

But the blaze and intense heat prevented them from breaching the vessel's hull to search for survivors before the craft sank, the Coast Guard said. A dense fog further complicated rescue efforts.

"Four victims have been recovered thus far as deceased," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told a news conference.
"Rescue and recovery efforts on the scene have located an additional four victims on the ocean floor in close proximity to the vessel," Brown said, while 26 people are missing.

Five Conception crew members were awake and jumped into the water when flames burst out around 3:15 am (1015 GMT), Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester said, putting the total number of people aboard the boat at 39.

The five were rescued by people on a pleasure craft called the Grape Escape, Rochester said.

Shirley Hansen, who was on the Grape Escape with her husband Bob, told the Los Angeles Times they were asleep when they heard pounding on the side of their fishing boat.

The crew, some only in underwear and two with leg injuries, had retrieved a dinghy and paddled 200 yards to the Hansens' boat.

Shirley Hansen said the men were distraught - one had a girlfriend below-deck on the Conception - and two of the men paddled back to look for survivors, but found none.

Photos: AP

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