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22 Conception Victims Identified

Search Continues for Last Victim; Crew Statements Recounted

Operations to recover 'Conception' began yesterday | Credit: Courtesy: USCG

The names were released of nine of the 34 people who died during the intense, sudden blaze that consumed the Conception dive boat off the coast of Santa Cruz Island early Monday morning; two were from Santa Barbara County. The rest hailed from all over the state and country, but most came from Northern California. Those named are: Raymond “Scott” Chan, 59, Los Altos; Justin Carroll Dignam, 58, Anaheim; Daniel Garcia, 46, Berkeley; Marybeth Guiney, 51 Santa Monica; Yulia Krashennaya, 40, Berkeley; Alexandra Kurtz, 26, Santa Barbara; Caroline McLaughlin, 35, Oakland; Ted Strom, 62, Germantown, Tennessee; and Wei Tan, 26, Goleta.

Since the morning’s announcements of the names of victims in the Conception tragedy, the Sheriff’s Office released 13 more names, stating that the families had been notified. The 13 are: Kendra Chan, 26, Oxnard; Angela Rose Quitasol, 28, Stockton; Evan Michel Quitasol, 37, Stockton; Nicole Storm Quitasol, 31, Imperial Beach; Michael Quitasol, 62, Stockton; Carol Diana Adamic, 60, Santa Cruz; Andrew Fritz, 40, Sacramento; Charles McIlvain, 44, Santa Monica; Steven Salika, 55, Santa Cruz; Tia Salika-Adamic, 17, Santa Cruz; Neal Gustav Baltz, 42, Phoenix, Arizona; Patricia Ann Beitzinger, 48, Chandler, Arizona; and Vaidehi Campbell, 41, Felton, California. In all, 23 of the 33 recovered victims have been identified. As well, the Coast Guard reports it has suspended salvage work for wind, current, and safety reasons. (Update: Sept. 6, 2019, 5 p.m.)

According to Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown this morning, the remains of 18 of the victims have now been identified thanks to accelerated DNA testing most recently deployed by Sacramento County in response to last year’s Camp Fire, which claimed 85 lives. He credited the Sacramento Coroner’s Office — as well as the private company that helped develop the new technology — for coming to Santa Barbara’s assistance.

Brown said only nine names have been released thus far because next of kin for the other nine had not yet been notified. One victim remains unaccounted for, said Brown. None of the many divers still scouring the ocean’s bottom have yet spotted the body in question, giving rise to the hope, Brown said, that when the boat is salvaged and brought to the surface, the last individual might be found. 

The sheriff, who also functions as the county coroner, said preliminary analysis by his department’s pathologist indicates the victims all died from smoke inhalation, not from the burns that gave rise to the clinically horrific “extreme thermal damage” description Brown had used in a prior press briefing. He stated that he does not expect to conduct full autopsies on the victims’ remains. Results from the toxicology reports were not likely to offer a compelling reason to conduct autopsies, he said, which would only further delay the return of the remains to their loved ones. 

Brown said he was struck by the far-flung points of origin of the victims: Japan, Singapore, and India being just a few. Brown said families were being notified in person, if not by his office then by representatives of the U.S. government. The process was delayed because the booking manifest with details about the passengers went up with the Conception. Brown said it had taken some time to reach the individual with a second copy. 

Trip organizer Kristy Finstad, who ran Worldwide Diving Adventures with her family, was among the victims aboard the Conception. Her husband, Dan Chua, was leading another dive expedition in Costa Rica at the time.

In the raising of the Conception on Friday, dive teams from the Sheriff’s Office, FBI, and the National Park Service were taking part. The involvement of the FBI, the speakers said, does not suggest or imply that criminal charges are imminent. Brown and others took pains to stress there’s no evidence of any criminal conduct. During the previous day’s press conference, Jennifer Homendy with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said criminal investigation was not the purview of her agency and that the FBI was there as experts in the preservation of evidence.

It’s a slow, careful process to roll the boat upright and raise it in one piece to preserve evidence, Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester explained. The salvage operation puts divers in 60 feet of water near the Conception to attach lines and monitor its movements as it was craned upward by barges at the surface, said Rochester, as well as to watch for signs of the last victim. The depth alone is fatiguing for divers, she said. If the forecast wind gusts of 35 knots appear and currents became dangerous, the salvage would be postponed.

In Jennifer Homendy’s comments on Thursday, she released details about the crewmembers’ actions from their interviews with the NTSB. One awakened to a noise, she related, and left the wheelhouse on the topmost deck to see flames erupting from the galley. The flames blocked the path from the ladder down, so the crewmembers, awake by then, jumped to the main deck, where one broke his leg. They tried the galley’s double doors and windows, but were blocked by flames, heat, and smoke, which forced them to leap into the ocean.

One unresolved issue that investigators are pursuing is the extent to which members of the crew had been assigned to keep watch during nighttime hours. At least three of the crewmembers were asleep. Other media outlets — citing undisclosed sources — have reported that no roving night watch had been assigned the night of the fire. When the NTSB was asked whether a licensed second captain had been assigned to the trip and whether that second captain was awake, a spokesperson declined to comment, explaining that was the subject an ongoing investigation. The Coast Guard declined to answer as well.

Two Conception crewmembers swam to the skiff at the rear of the boat, according to the NTSB’s Homendy, and returned to pick up the others, taking them to a nearby boat, where calls to 9-1-1 were attempted. The two in the skiff went back to the Conception, but were unable, again, to reach any passengers.

Homendy said her team would take the information back to D.C. soon, to develop a timeline of events, including all the gear charging in the galley area. She said many batteries for photography and cell phones were charging on the vessel; her team was also looking at the boat’s electrical system and wiring. Inspector in Charge Adam Tucker verified that the Conception, given its age, was not required to have smoke detectors wired into the electrical system or connected to the bridge.

At today’s press meet up, Sheriff Brown said the “A Team” of fire investigators had started their research today, namely the ATF. Special Agent in Charge Carlos Canino — of the formally called Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the only person present in a suit and tie — clarified that his agents had been on scene since Monday, but that today his investigatory team would arrive and start their search into the origin and cause of the fire aboard the Conception. Refusing to answer questions or speculate on anything, Canino stated his senior agents had 250 years of experience between them and that his boss, acting deputy director Regina Lombardo, promised “all the resources of the ATF are available for this incident.”

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