Deadly California boat fire devastates community of local divers – Los Angeles Times

Over the past 10 years, Ben Wolfe has boarded a boat in the Santa Barbara Harbor with his wetsuit and scuba tank, ready to catch lobsters.

His annual trip is usually scheduled for the opening weekend of lobster season — around the end of September — and takes him and 30 other people more than 100 miles south, landing just north of the Mexican border.

Whether the trip will happen later this month, however, is unclear. One of the boats typically used — a 75-foot vessel called Conception — was destroyed in a fire Monday while anchored off Santa Cruz Island during a three-day dive excursion.

Five crew members managed to escape the inferno, but officials had little hope about finding anyone else alive. Thirty-nine people were on board when the fire broke out. As of Tuesday morning, the remains of 20 people — 11 female and 9 male — have been found. Fourteen people are still missing, officials say.

Kristy Finstad, the woman who organizes Wolfe’s annual trip, is among those who is presumed dead.

The deadly blaze rocked the small, tight-knit diving community in Southern California. Experienced divers say they frequently run into the same people on excursions time and time again. Many have formed lasting friendships bound by a shared passion for exploring the ocean’s depths.

“I don’t know who else I know on that boat,” he said.

Wolfe, a retired Los Angeles County fire captain, takes two lobster diving trips a year. The first one is organized by Finstad and her husband, Dan Chua, and costs $900, he said.

The four-day trips begin at night when the passengers board and the captain begins the 12-hour journey to Cortes Bank, a barely submerged island that is considered the outermost part of the Channel Islands. There, where there is no land in sight and just a single buoy on the water, the divers swim into the ocean and catch lobsters by hand.

On these trips, Wolfe has gotten to know Finstad, Chua and the ship’s captain Jerry Boylan, he said. Passengers relax on deck together and share meals. The boat usually has an electric barbecue on deck where a cook makes tri-tip.

“They’re all a bunch of really nice people,” he said. “We have a great time.”

At Cortes Bank, there is a wrecked ship that the divers can swim within. Lobsters love the ship so it’s an easy place to catch them, as long as you go early enough in the season, he said.

“You gotta be one of the first boats out there,” he said. “On the first Finstad trip we usually are.”

The same people tend to go on these trips, so they get to know one another. Many of them are experienced divers, he said.

“It just tells you — the people that are on these trips, these are capable people. If they got trapped below deck and couldn’t make it out, that tells you something really bad happened, really quick,” he said.

Wolfe said he recently received an email from Chua saying he was in Costa Rica, so he wouldn’t be going on this most recent trip.

Two weeks ago, Wolfe, who lives in Santa Barbara, took a multi-day trip on Conception, to go fishing with some friends — lobster season hasn’t started yet. The journey took them from Santa Barbara Island to Cortes Bank to Santa Cruz Island.

Chris Grossman, president of a Southern California scuba
club called the Sea Divers, said he was last aboard the Conception about seven years ago for a diving trip. Truth Aquatics, the company that owns Conception and its two sister boats — Truth and Vision — has a sterling reputation among divers, Grossman said.

“Their boats were always immaculately kept and immaculately run,” he said. “The fact that this happened to this boat is very shocking.”

Local, state and federal investigators are trying to determine exactly what went wrong on the Conception, a vessel once described by California Diving News as “California’s crown jewel of live-aboard dive boats.”

Wolfe said that every time he boards a Truth Aquatics boat, the crew gives a 20-minute safety presentation that covers the location of life jackets and boats and emergency exits.

“They cover it every time they go out, whether you’ve heard it 100 times or not. They’re totally safety-conscious,” he said. “I feel better about going out with them than I do on my own boat.”

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