In sharp contrast to the thousands who attended the vigil a year ago at Chase Palm Park, only a relative handful of grieving family members and emergency personnel were allowed at the emplacement Wednesday morning of a permanent memorial to the 34 people who died aboard the Conception on September 2, 2019. Instead, the thousands could watch the ceremony virtually during a livestream broadcast on network TV and CityTV Channel 18, a safety measure meant to allow participation while avoiding potential COVID infections.
At around 3:15 a.m. on the Monday of last Labor Day’s three-day weekend, a raging fire awakened a crew member aboard the popular dive boat, run by Truth Aquatics out of Santa Barbara Harbor’s Sea Landing, on a trip organized by a respected tour outfit, Worldwide Diving Adventures of Santa Cruz. The captain and four crew leapt from their cabins to the deck below, one of them breaking his leg, attempting to rescue the others but driven back by fire and smoke. They jumped into the sea to escape the spreading flames, swimming to a dinghy to attempt to rescue the others. All below in the passenger bunks were smothered to death by the carbon monoxide from the fire, the coroner’s reports stated.
Harbor Patrol Officer Ryan Kelly was one of the first on the scene of the disaster with fellow officer Karl Halamicek. At Tuesday’s ceremony, Kelly knelt to lift a black cloth, revealing a boulder set with a plaque holding the names of the deceased; many were members of the diving community in the Bay Area. Some were family members, taking the three-day trip together to explore the underwater environs of the Santa Barbara Channel Islands. One was a Conception crewmember, who bunked below in the passenger quarters.
The 34 names were read and their photos broadcast in a moving remembrance, which had been preceded by Suzanne Grimmesey of County Behavioral Wellness speaking to the small group about grief and survival. “This will be a hard day,” she said, as hard as this day last year. “That’s normal, that’s okay,” she added. “Take this day one step at a time. … Cherish the memories of your loved ones, and don’t forget how far you have come.”
Mayor Cathy Murillo sent a brief taped message of comfort, and then Sheriff Bill Brown’s longer message revealed more details of the search in the days following the disaster. Divers from 13 agencies, including Southern California sheriff and police departments, port authorities, NOAA, FBI, and Fish & Wildlife participated in the search, which Coast Guard Commander Monica Rochester said was the worst maritime disaster in her 30-plus years and the only one in which all the victims were recovered, said Brown.
“No one was left behind,” he said, and they would never be forgotten. Brown recalled the blessing on the red-and-white dive flag raised at the scene by the diving community: “Fair winds and following seas. We’ll remember you on every dive.”