SANTA CRUZ (KPIX 5) — The tight-knit diving communities in the Bay Area and Central Coast are bracing for news about the dozens of divers presumed dead after a deadly fire aboard a dive charter ship off the coast of Santa Barbara early Monday morning.
A Facebook post by Brett Harmeling of Houston identifies his sister, Kristy Finstad, as one of the passengers aboard the vessel, named Conception.
Finstad is the owner and operator of Worldwide Diving Adventures, which still lists a Santa Cruz area phone number, but has a mailing address in Winters, near Sacramento in rural Yolo County.
“Please pray for my sister Kristy!! She was leading a dive trip on this boat,” said Harmeling in the post, which accompanied a link to media reports about the deadly fire.
Calls to the company’s phone went directly to a full voicemail box. There was no answer at the Santa Cruz home of Bill Finstad, Kristy’s father.
Investigators say Worldwide Diving Adventures chartered the trip. The company website features a Labor Day weekend dive for $665 on the Conception to the Channel Islands.
Dispatcher radio traffic captured the transmissions to rescue personnel around 3:15 a.m reporting a fire aboard the 75-foot vessel, owned by Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara.
Five crew members who were awake and above the deck at the time jumped off the ship, which was anchored 20 yards off the coast of Santa Cruz Island. They were later rescued. 34 people were trapped below deck.
Firefighters and the Coast Guard have since recovered 25 bodies, with nine more still missing. Some are presumed still trapped inside the boat, which is submerged in 60 foot waters, but unstable due to the shifting current.
Mary Jo Nelson, owner and captain of the Beachhopper II, a charter dive boat based in Monterey, said it was an emotional day.
“Everyone does know everyone in some way. It’s just super, super heartbreaking,” said Nelson.
Nelson has taken several excursions with Truth Aquatic, saying the company is widely known, with a good reputation within the diving community. And while she has no confirmation about Finstad’s whereabouts, she fears the worst.
“It’s an amazing company, they run an impeccable business, so yes, it was very hard to hear,” said Nelson. “It’s just so heartbreaking and you feel for all of the families and basically the whole dive community, but especially for the families.”
Santa Cruz City Manager Martín Bernal confirms Finstad was employed with the Water Department from January 11, 2005 to July 9, 2015.