SANTA BARBARA (CBS SF/AP) — The majority of 34 people killed when a dive boat exploded in flames near an island off the Southern California coast were from Northern California and the San Francisco Bay Area, including five members of a Stockton family, family members and authorities said Tuesday.
Of the 34 victims, Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown said, 20 bodies have been recovered — 11 females and 9 males. The remaining 14 are listed as missing, but Brown said 4-to-6 bodies were spotted by divers in the sunken remains of the 74-foot Conception and were expected to be recovered on Tuesday.
When asked where the passengers were from, Brown delivered a grim message for the Bay Area.
“Anecdotally, we have heard there was a 17-year-old on the vessel and also anecdotally we know there were some people in their 60s,” Brown said. “The majority of the people on this trip appeared to have been from the Santa Cruz, San Jose, Bay Area region.”
A man who described himself to KPIX 5 as an immediate family member said 17-year-old Tia Salika, a student at Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz, was one of the victims. She was onboard the Conception with her father, Steve Salika, and his wife, Diana Adamic, celebrating her 17th birthday with the diving trip.
Steve Salika was an Apple veteran employee of over 30 years, the company said, and he and Diana met while working there. In a statement to KPIX 5, Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Retail and People, said:
“It’s with very heavy hearts that we mourn the passing of two of our colleagues in the tragic boat fire that took place Labor Day weekend. We share our deepest condolences with their families and friends. Steve was a 30-year Apple veteran whose energy and enthusiasm touched so many people across our company throughout his career. He met his wife at Apple and was aboard with her and their daughter.”
The family member, who chose to remain anonymous, also confirmed to KPIX 5 that Tia’s friend, also a PCS student, was with them.
Brown said advanced DNA technology used to identify the victims of last year’s deadly Camp Fire that devastated Paradise would also be used on the dive boat victims.
“It’s a rapid process compared to the normal DNA process,” he said. “Normally, DNA can take days, weeks or months to obtain. This system is capable of doing it much more rapidly.”
Meanwhile, Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester told reporters the search for any possible survivors was suspended because no one was seen entering the water. An aircraft that flew over the scene didn’t see any additional signs of debris or distress.
“It is never an easy decision to suspend search efforts,” she said. “We know that this is a very difficult time for families and friends of the victims.”
Stockton resident Susana Rosas posted on Facebook that she lost five members of her family.
“It is with a broken heart … 3 of our daughters were on this boat. As of now they are still missing,” she posted. “My #1, Evanmichel Solano Quitasol, my #3, NicoleStorm Quitasol and my #4, Angela Rose Quitasol. My girls’ dad Michel Storm Quitasol and step mom were also on the boat. We are getting the latest information from the media. The authorities do not have much to say to us. Thank you to all of you for your support prayers and good wishes.”
Pacific Scuba Divers, based in Sunnyvale, posted on Facebook that two if its patrons were on the boat.
“At around 3am today (9/2/2019) a fire broke out on the live aboard boat CONCEPTION operated by Truth Aquatics off Santa Cruz island near LA. Our good friend and long time patron Scott and his daughter were on board among several other divers. As the search goes on to find survivors from this awful tragedy, our heart goes out to families of Scott and other divers who were on the boat. Our prayers are with the families during this tragic time!”
Later Tuesday, the Fremont Unified School District confirmed that American High School teacher Scott Chan and his daughter died in the boat fire.
“This morning we were saddened to learn of the death of Raymond (Scott) Chan. Mr. Chan and his child, died over the weekend in the tragic boat fire off the coast of Santa Barbara,” said district spokesman Brian Kilgore in a statement. “Mr. Chan taught AP Physics 1 and AP Physics C at American for the past three years. Mr. Chan was a beloved teacher at AHS among students and colleagues. His students knew him to be an innovative and inspiring teacher who developed a passion for physics among his students. His loss is a tremendous tragedy for our school district.”
Fremont Unified said crisis intervention counselors would be on the American High campus all week.
Also among the missing also were two students from Santa Cruz’s tiny Pacific Collegiate School. Students gathered for classes Tuesday, awaiting any word on the fate of their two classmates.
Maria Reitano, the school’s principal, told reporters grief counselors would be on-campus to help the students.
“I expect today is going to be a difficult day,” Reitano said. “Young people in particular have variety of ways of responding to crisis situations. So we are prepared for whatever they bring to school.”
The Conception carried 33 passengers and 6 crew members, and only five of the crew sleeping on the top deck were able to escape by jumping off and taking a small boat to safety. Investigators have not yet determined how the fire broke out.
Brown said authorities were trying to stabilize the boat that sank in about 60 feet (18 meters) of water so divers can recover those remains.
One victim, Santa Cruz marine biologist and veteran diver Kristy Finstad, 41, was identified in a Facebook post by her brother, Brett Harmeling of Houston.
“Please pray for my sister Kristy!! She was leading a dive trip on this boat,” Harmeling wrote.
Finstad, the owner of Worldwide Diving Adventures, which chartered the doomed boat, was a former Santa Cruz city employee and officials issued a statement Tuesday mourning her loss.
“The City of Santa Cruz joins the nation in mourning the tragic fire that destroyed the dive boat Conception off of the Ventura Coast Monday morning. Kristina Finstad, a former City of Santa Cruz employee, is one of those listed as missing. Kristina Finstad worked for the City of Santa Cruz’s Water Department as a half-time employee from 2005-2015 while assisting with her family’s dive business.
The fire broke out about 3 a.m. Monday as the Conception was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, about 90 miles west of Los Angeles. The crew appeared to quickly call for help.
“The call was garbled, it was not that clear, but we were able to get some information out of it to send vessels,” Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney said.
Capt. Paul Amaral of the vessel assistance company TowBoatUS also launched a fast boat from Ventura Harbor, but it was some 30 miles away. By the time it got there around 5 a.m., a Coast Guard helicopter and a fireboat were on scene.
Amaral said he first searched the water and shoreline, then turned back to the Conception, which was adrift. He attached a line and pulled it into deeper water so the fireboats could reach it.
“We launched that boat knowing that the vessel was on fire, lots of people aboard,” he told The Associated Press.
The five crew members, meanwhile, went on a dinghy to a private fishing boat, The Grape Escape, that was anchored near the north shore of Santa Cruz Island. Two had minor injuries.
That boat’s owners, Bob and Shirley Hansen, told The New York Times they were asleep when they heard pounding on the side of their 60-foot vessel about 3:30 a.m. and discovered the frightened crew members.
“When we looked out, the other boat was totally engulfed in flames, from stem to stern,” Hansen said. “I could see the fire coming through holes on the side of the boat. There were these explosions every few beats. You can’t prepare yourself for that. It was horrendous.”