Thirty-four scuba cylinders lined the stage at Chase Palm Park Friday evening — one for each life lost aboard the Conception when it burst into flames on Labor Day. More than 1,000 from Santa Barbara and beyond gathered at the vigil in the park to mourn the loss of the 34 people killed in the deadliest disaster in the county’s history.
“Our community has faced too many tragedies in recent times,” said Don Barthelmess, a longtime diver who has taught recreational and commercial diving at Santa Barbara City College for over three decades.
“All of us in the diving community are bonded by our love for the ocean,” Barthelmess said. “The dolphin is a symbol for Santa Barbara. Every time you see one, remember our brothers and sisters who died in the sea.”
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Coroner’s Office announced earlier in the day that only 33 of the 34 victims’ bodies have been recovered — the search for the last person is still ongoing. So far, 22 of the victim’s identities have been released because their next-of-kin were notified.
At the remembrance vigil, Barthelmess spoke along with Suzanne Grimmesey, chief strategy officer for County Behavioral Wellness, and chaplains from the faith community — Rabbi Daniel Brenner, Rev. Dr. Kate Wiebe, and Very Rev. Fr. Jon-Stephen Hedges.
Grimmesey emphasized the importance of community grieving throughout the vigil. She brought more than two dozen grief counselors from the Community Wellness Team, which originally formed in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire and subsequent 1/9 Debris Flow.
“Everybody grieves differently,” said Lindsey Milner, a counselor on the team. “Grieving as a community is unique because you aren’t alone and can be surrounded by people experiencing the same feelings. Although it’s terrible, the cohesion created from it is something really special.”
Milner and other counselors were deployed throughout the crowd and available to anyone needing to talk. She said that some of the first signs of grief are sleep disturbances and extreme irritability. One of her roles as a counselor, she said, is to normalize those experiences and create a safe space for community members to feel pain and be heard and validated.
As the ceremony came to a close, community members, family members who’d lost loved ones, first responders, and city officials placed white roses and carnations in baskets at the base of the stage as an expression of their condolences to the victims and their families. Grimmesey said the baskets of flowers will be taken to the city’s “lost at sea” memorial at the breakwater.
“These 34 lights and scuba cylinders represent our brother and sister divers who did not make it home that night,” Barthelmess said. “Reach out and hug each other. Listen to each other’s raw emotions.”