The victims of the California boat fire were there for precious family time, birthday celebrations and an adventurous weekend out on the sea
In the early morning hours of Monday, Sept. 2, a 75-foot commercial diving boat was wrapping up a Labor Day weekend excursion when it burst into flames off the coast of Santa Cruz Island in California. The 34 people who were sleeping below deck were trapped and killed, while five crew members — the only ones not below deck — survived.
On Friday, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said that a preliminary examination revealed that the victims died of smoke inhalation rather than burns and that authorities have identified 18 of the bodies, USA Today reported.
As the investigation continues, families, friends, and colleagues have spoken out about the lives that were taken too soon while pursuing their passion for diving. Aboard the Conception was a family of five, people celebrating birthdays, high school students, couples seeking adventures, and more.
Glen Fritzler, the owner and operator of Truth Aquatics, said his team is temporarily ceasing operations after the “complete tragedy” on its boat.
“I’m numb,” said Fritzler — whose company has filed a lawsuit to limit victim payouts and has not yet returned PEOPLE’s requests for comment — in a phone interview with Spectrum News 1 on Tuesday. “There were a lot of people that were on that boat that I knew personally, people that I had dealt with for decades.”
Below is a list of the 31 victims known so far.
The couple, who lived in Phoenix, both loved the outdoors and taking trips together, Michael Pierce, the viticulture and enology director at Yavapai College, tells PEOPLE.
Neal Baltz, an engineer, studied winemaking and was supposed to be back at class on Tuesday night to present about wines he had recently discovered in Washington State.
“He had plans to stay with some of his friends after class, and they didn’t hear from him,” says Pierce. “That friend texted me and we saw the news article. That’s how we found out.”
Pierce says that Baltz showed “a lot of dedication” by making the hour-and-a-half drive to their campus and had “quite the thirst for knowledge.”
“He wanted to follow his passion,” he adds. “It’s hard work and it’s basically farming. We spend a lot of hours together and it’s outside in the sun. He always made sure that if we had tough days it was a positive atmosphere. He was always goofing around about something.”
Patricia Beitzinger, meanwhile, “was always laughing at something goofy Neal was doing,” Pierce says.
“They were a loving couple,” says Pierce. “Patricia was usually smiling. They were a terrific couple to be around.”
The marine biologist, diving instructor and co-founder of Worldwide Diving Adventures, which chartered the dive boat Conception, has likely “transitioned to be with the good Lord,” her brother Brett Harmeling posted on Facebook Tuesday.
According to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, she ran the company with her husband Dan Chua — and was helping lead the trip.
The weekend should have been a celebration of Michael Quitasol’s 63rd birthday, with his wife Fernisa Sison, 57, and his three children Evanmichel, 37, Nicole, 31 and Angela Rose, 28, from his previous marriage to Susana Solana Rosas.
Instead, five members of a close-knit blended Stockton, California family died, family members confirm to PEOPLE.
Eldest daughter Evanmichel was a nurse working in the emergency department of Quality Health St. Joseph Medical Center in Stockton. Sison was a nurse practitioner and chronic conditions specialist at Kaiser Permanente in Modesto, where Michael also worked as a nurse.
Angela was a science teacher at Sierra Middle School in Stockton, and Nicole, who lived in San Diego, worked at Nicky Rottens Bar and Burger Joint in Coronado.
“Our whole family were certified divers,” Sison’s son Dominic Selga, 37, who is also a nurse at St. Joseph, tells PEOPLE. “We’d go on family trips diving. It’s been almost 10 years since we started.”
“Michael, her husband, it was one of his passions and wanted to start doing it again when they got together. They got certification and so did all their children.”
On Aug. 17, the Quitasol sisters got together for the marriage of their sister Evita Rosas Olson, with Angela Rose serving as maid of honor and Nicole stepping in as a bridesmaid.
“Angela was one of the warmest, most loving people I’ve ever met,” Olson tells PEOPLE. “Angela loved to sing, loved science and loved the ocean. The ocean called her home.”
Angela had played roller derby with the Port City Roller Girls in Stockton, where she skated under the name Hermione Danger, the team said on Facebook.
Selga said the outpouring of fond memories by Angela’s students and former students has been comforting.
“She was so fun, always so bubbly,” Selga says. “She always had colorful hair, smiling, just the best personality. She would talk to you forever.”
Selga and Evanmichel also worked at the same hospital.
“I heard from one of the new nurses who worked with her in intensive care and he said she set the foundation of how he gives his nursing care,” Selga says. “Everybody just loved her. She was so sweet to my kids. She was a traveler who loved life.”
Nicole’s boss Bryn Andrew describes Nicole to PEOPLE as an adventurous person who loved the ocean and the beach, spent time with her golden retriever Peanut Butter, and enjoyed all water sports. He also notes how reliable and personable she was.
“We live in a beach town so I organized a beach clean-up, which Nicole did all the time. I asked everyone at the restaurant to participate and the only one who showed up was Nicole and Peanut Butter,” he recalls to PEOPLE. “Peanut Butter ran up to me and jumped up and kissed me. I told Nicole I thought I’d be the only one here, and she said she would never desert me,” he continues. “And we cleaned up the beach for three hours.”
Rosas wrote on her Facebook page: “I know our children don’t belong to us. As parents, we have plans for their life. They had surpassed my expectations I had for them. I was so proud of them and their accomplishments. They each knew it, too. My three girls were very happy with their lives. They each had found their loves, were well established in their communities with the best part of life ahead of them.”
Allie Kurtz’s mother, Cherie McDonough, told reporters she was a go-getter. “She was following her dream,” said McDonough. “She loved it here. She loved the boat. She loved diving. She could do anything she wanted.”
According to CNN Wire, McDonough began to sob and collapsed to the ground when she saw the photo of her daughter at the memorial.
The message below the photo reportedly said: “I love you Allie — and you know I always will. I’ll miss you forever.”
Scott Chan and his daughter Kendra were avid divers who bonded over their shared love of the ocean.
“He was a real family man who loved to dive with his daughter and his wife,” his cousin Eugenie Chan tells PEOPLE. “He was also a devoted teacher and took great joy in being the serious ‘Mr. Chan’ who also brought flying pigs in to show off a physics principle. He used to be an engineer, but he loved being a teacher.”
The Stanford grad and Los Altos, California resident worked as an engineer for Tandem Computers, Silicon Graphics and Juniper Networks, retiring early to pursue a career in teaching and volunteering. He taught AP physics at American High School in Fremont. He and his wife, Vicki Moore, have two children, Kendra, a marine biologist who was living in Ventura at the time, and Kevin, who lives in Los Angeles.
Eugenie tells PEOPLE that the family all loved to dive and were “big environmentalists.”
“It’s just a shock to think they are not going to be doing this,” she adds. “And Kendra. So young, so good, so eager to do things. She was an avid environmentalist and wanted to do good. And now…”
Kendra was a recent graduate of U.C. Davis. On the school’s website Chancellor Gary S. May issued this statement:
“Kendra’s fascination with marine ecology will continue to inspire everyone she touched. She pursued her scientific curiosity with great zest at UC Davis, from working at our Bodega Marine Lab for two summers to studying biodiversity in the Stachowicz Lab. As the co-president of Davis SEEDS, she supported fellow students in making the transition from college to career. Kendra made her mark at UC Davis. We are grateful for her contributions to our campus community and her dedication to creating a healthier planet. We will remember her.”
In a video, Kendra talked about her love of diving and how her parents had inspired her.
Moore told KTVU that “you don’t expect to have a child that dies before you.”
“I can barely talk about my husband, but frankly, it’s even harder when it’s your own child,” said Moore, who was married to Raymond for 35 years and dropped him off at the dock on Friday night for the diving trip.
The Salika family had embarked on the diving expedition to celebrate Tia’s birthday, according to Margo Peyton, the president of Kids Sea Camps (KSC), where Tia started taking scuba diving lessons from the time she was 6.
“They were celebrating Tia’s birthday just the way Tia wanted: Diving,” Peyton tells PEOPLE. “You know the name of the boat was Conception, and Tia was celebrating that. It was such a great tragedy; this is not a common thing.”
“This family loved diving,” Peyton continues. “How happy they are as a family, underwater, learning about corals and fish.”
The family was also with Tia’s classmate, Berenice Felipe. Peyton says the duo was inseparable, adding that both girls were “very sweet” and “very intelligent coral restoration divers.”
In a statement to PEOPLE on Wednesday, Salika, who worked as a senior manager at Apple for three decades, was remembered by his former employers as a positive force in the company.
“Steve was a 30-year Apple veteran whose energy and enthusiasm touched so many people across our company throughout his career,” says Deirdre O’Brien, senior vice president of retail + people. “He met his wife at Apple and was aboard with her and their daughter.”
Both Tia and Felipe attended Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz, NBC News reports.
In a statement on Facebook, school officials wrote that the community is “saddened by the tragic sinking of the diving vessel Conception over the weekend. While this was not a school sponsored trip, our hearts and thoughts are with the families of the victims and those yet missing, particularly those of our students and parents on board. Thank you to the Santa Cruz community and others who have reached out to us to offer condolences and support for our school.”
Bright and vivacious, Berenice Felipe Alvarez had overcome a lot in her 16 years. Her parents, Yadira Alvarez and Federico Felipe Morales, had come from Mexico seeking a better life.
Born in Los Angeles, Berenice moved to Watsonville with her family as an infant. Her father was killed after being hit in a crosswalk when Berenice was just 7. She was raised by her widowed mother and eventually went to Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz. There she became best friends with Tia Salika, who brought her along on the family’s adventures.
“Tia’s best friend was Berenice and she was certified to dive last year,” Margo Peyton, owner of Kids Sea Camp, tells PEOPLE. “Berenice was very sweet, they both were, and they were very intelligent and environmentally savvy.”
The Santa Cruz community, including Pacific Collegiate School, is also mourning Berenice.
Maria Reitano, head of the school, told KABC on Tuesday that she expected it to be “a difficult day,” adding, “I think young people, in particular, have a variety of ways of responding to crisis situations. So we’re prepared for whatever they bring to school this morning.”
Mike Kohls had a daughter and was the galley cook and deckhand, his brother James Kohls told reporters on Monday, according to KSWB. Usually, Mike made breakfast for passengers around 4 a.m., James said.
Visual effects designer Charles McIlvain — known for his work on films such as Spider-Man and Green Lantern, according to IMDB — was with his good friend Marybeth Guiney aboard the Conception.
“His laugh was the greatest and his smile could light up the dark,” his family said in a statement, the Associated Press reported. “He embraced life with exceptional joy, openness and humor, and all who knew him felt that warmth.”
The Malibu Divers also paid tribute on Facebook to both McIlvain and Guiney.
“All of us are devastated by the Conception dive boat tragedy,” they wrote. “We’d like to honor Charles McIlvain and Marybeth Guiney by asking you to tell a story about a dive adventure or (anecdote) you had with them. Please share, I know it will help us all.”
The Sea Shepard Conversation Society gave their condolences to his wife Jasmine, who was not with him on the trip.
“Sea Shepherd is one big family and when one of our own suffers from a tragic loss each and every one of us agonizes along with them,” they wrote on Facebook. “Our long time and valued photographer suffered the loss of her husband and best friend in a tragic accident this weekend. Jasmine, in your time of need, please know that you have an entire family of fellow Sea Shepherd brothers and sisters who are sending you good thoughts and we are here for you for anything you need.”
For Marybeth Guiney, who lived Santa Monica, California, diving started off as a hobby but “turned into a passion,” Santa Monica attorney Perry Roshan-Zamir tells PEOPLE. “She was constantly thinking about her next diving trip. I remember we were sharing pictures one night sitting on board the boat out in the Solomon Islands, sharing stories. She was super excited about everything she’d seen down there underwater and wanted to share that.”
Everything around her involved water, adds Roshan-Zamir.
“All of her social connections and passions, in some form. She was definitely a water person — like a lot of us are — and I don’t mean that in a Zodiac way. She loved the ocean and wanted to do what she could to protect that environment,” he says.
According to Roshan-Zamir, she had no commitments for the long weekend, so she said to her neighbor, and fellow victim, Charles Mcllvain, “Let’s go diving.”
Guiney — a sales director, according to The Daily Breeze — once worked for The New England Patriots, which released a statement following her death, NBC News stations in Boston and Los Angeles reported.
“The New England Patriots organization is deeply saddened to learn of the tragic death of Marybeth Guiney. We send our sincerest sympathies to her family and all who mourn Marybeth’s loss,” the team said.
Lisa Fiedler texted her mother, Nancy Fiedler, just hours before she died, saying, “I’m having a great time, beautiful spot,” Nancy told ABC News affiliate KGO.
Nancy added that she hopes Lisa, who was a hairdresser in Mill Valley, died peacefully in her sleep.
“Everybody loved her. She was a kind, gentle person. She was a naturalist, she loved nature,” she said. “She loved the water. She was a Pisces and she said, ‘I think I’m part fish.’ ”
The Apple employee’s aunt, Blanche Garcia Slanga Hayden, took to Facebook and thanked everyone for the “kind, thoughtful wishes regarding the loss of my nephew, Dan Garcia, and his girlfriend, Yulia Krashennaya.”
Her brother flew to Santa Barbara to provide a DNA sample for identification purposes, which is “one of the hardest things he ever thought he would have to do.”
“Dan was an incredible, special young man, 46 years young,” his aunt added. “A gifted engineer with companies like Amazon and, most recently Apple. Loved scuba diving. A passionate, talented artist in many venues. A loving partner, son, brother and friend to many. He will truly be missed by so many people.”
Yulia Krashennaya lived with her boyfriend Dan Garcia, according to his aunt and KABC.
“I feel like they were part of my family,” neighbor Madie Price told the news outlet. “They were very nice people who never gave anyone any problem whatsoever — they added to the neighborhood.”
She added, “I hate that this happened — they have all my sympathy.”
The vice president of engineering at education platform Brilliant, based in San Francisco, was killed with her colleague, Carrie McLaughlin, the company confirmed, according to the SF Chronicle.
In a statement to the LAlist, CEO Sue Khim said: “The loss of Carrie and Kristian is deeply heartbreaking for all of us at Brilliant. Carrie and Kristian were incredible friends and colleagues who brought immense passion, talent, leadership, and warmth, and they will be missed dearly. Our hearts are with their families and friends.”
Caroline McLaughlin, a senior software engineer at Brilliant, was with her colleague Kristian Takvam on the Conception, the company confirmed to LAlist.
Adrian Dahood-Fritz and her husband Andrew Fritz, who moved to California from Texas in April, took the trip to Santa Cruz Island in order “to see the marine wildlife there,” a family friend told KCRA.
The couple headed west after Dahood-Fritz, a senior environmental scientist for the Ocean Protection Council, got a job working for the state.
On Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom released a statement regarding the couple.
“We are saddened to learn that Adrian Dahood-Fritz, who worked for the Ocean Protection Council under the California Natural Resources Agency since April as a senior environmental scientist, and her husband Andrew Fritz, were aboard the boat and are presumed dead,” Newsom wrote. “Adrian led the state’s efforts to manage California’s network of marine protected areas, and she cared deeply about the ocean and biodiversity. She embodied marine conservation and was a highly accomplished and respected scientific researcher. Adrian’s passion and energy will be greatly missed.
Vaidehi Campbell worked for the Soquel Creek Water District, a local non-profit government agency, for 18 years.
“Vai was a very special person,” a press release from the Soquel Creek Water District read, adding that Campbell, who worked as the district’s communications specialist, “brought immense joy to work every day and was a dear friend to all of us.”
“May we always remember her infectious smile, kind heart, vast knowledge, and adventurous spirit,” the district added. “Vai will forever be our ‘Water Princess.’ ”
“Anyone who has spent just a little time with her has been enchanted by her energy and felt the instant warmth of her friendship,” wrote friend Karen Anderson in a GoFundMe fundraiser to help Campbell’s family. “She had a way of bringing people together, and seized every opportunity to live life to its fullest.”
Kaustubh Nirmal, who worked in finance, and Sanjeeri Deopujari, a dentist, were married for two and a half years, according to The Los Angeles Times.
“God took them away from us untimely and unfairly, but even he didn’t have the heart to separate them in death,” Nirmal’s cousin, Rajul Sharma, told the Times, describing them as “the perfect couple.”
Justin Dignam was the founder and CEO of a Southern California payroll company.
In an email, the president of Big Fish Employer Services, which Dignam founded in 2003, said the company had been “shocked and horrified” by the news that Dignam had been onboard the vessel, and that they were “prepared for the worst” while waiting for authorities to identify the victims.
Added sister-in-law Lynne Chandler on Facebook, “This has been the most devastating news ever.”
An avid lover of water polo, Dignam played the sport while studying at the University of Richmond and later worked as the head coach of Wesleyan University’s men’s water polo team, according to his company bio.
“Justin was the kindest, nicest man. He always had a good word, a word of encouragement. He loved water sports, especially water polo,” friend Greg Nolan tells PEOPLE. “He loved being in and around the water. It’s just so sad and awful that this happened. We have lost a very kind soul.”
In 2011, Dignam’s company announced a partnership with USA Water Polo.