Kristy Finstad first swam the waters of California’s Channel Islands as a toddler, tucked under her father’s arm. The 41-year-old marine biologist had since returned hundreds of times to the area’s swaying kelp forests and arrays of coral.
On Friday, Finstad boarded a diving boat to help lead an expedition for her family’s scuba diving company. After a fire broke out on board early Monday morning, engulfing and sinking the 75-foot vessel, Finstad was among those initially unaccounted for.
“She’s extremely strong-willed and very adventurous,” said her brother, Brett Harmeling, 31. “If there was a 1% chance of her making it, she would have made it.”
When the fire broke out around 3:15 a.m., all but a handful of the 39 people on board were asleep below deck in narrow wooden bunks.
Five of the six crew members managed to escape to a nearby boat. In a mayday call to the Coast Guard, a panicked man said he was struggling to breathe.
Four hours after the fire began, the Conception sank in 62 feet of water and overturned, making the effort to identify and recover the victims of the disaster far more difficult, officials said.
“This is probably the worst-case scenario you could possibly have,” said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown. “You have a vessel that’s on the open sea, that is in the middle of the night. Fire is the scourge of any ship.”
As of Tuesday morning, the remains of 20 people — 11 female and 9 male — have been found. Fourteen people are still missing. Between four and six victims were seen by the divers still in the wreckage, but they were unable to be recovered before nightfall, Brown said.
The magnitude of the tragedy rocked California’s diving community, where the Conception was a familiar name. Devoted divers woke up to texts from friends across the world, who had seen the news and were checking on their loved ones.
“We are a tight but small community,” said Cathy Corbett, a seasoned diver from Palos Verdes. “It’s awful.”
According to a Coast Guard official, the five crew members who survived were awake when the fire broke out. They jumped into the ocean, retrieved a dinghy and paddled 200 yards to a 60-foot fishing boat owned by Shirley Hansen and her husband, Bob.
The couple were awoken by a loud thumping noise on the side of their boat, Grape Escape, which was apparently the only other vessel in the vicinity. They found five men, distraught, some wearing just underwear. One man appeared to have broken his leg, and another had injured his ankle.
By the time the dinghy arrived, the Conception was engulfed in flames, Bob Hansen said.
“There would be explosions going off every couple of minutes,” Hansen said. “It was probably some of the dive tanks exploding. It made me feel so helpless.”
Some of the rescued men were crying, one telling the couple that his girlfriend was still below deck on the Conception. Another man described how the crew had celebrated three passengers’ birthdays hours earlier, including that of a 17-year-old girl who was on the diving trip with her parents.
Shirley Hansen said two of the crew members got back in the dinghy to see if anyone had jumped overboard. But, she said, “they came back and there was no one that they found.”
As the fog lifted on Monday afternoon, at least three vessels were at sea in the vicinity of the doomed dive boat. They included a gray salvage ship with a large crane extended over the side, and an aluminum skiff in a compact stretch of ocean at the northernmost end of Santa Cruz Island.
A Coast Guard cutter sliced through the water nearby, warning off all non-rescue boat traffic over the radio: “The captain has extended the security zone to one mile.”
Lee Waldron, operations division chief of the Santa Barbara City Fire Department, said late Monday that some of the bodies had been found within the ship and others recovered outside of it.
Divers are in “obviously very difficult conditions, both physically and psychologically,” he said.
While distraught friends and relatives waited anxiously for news, and mourners left flowers for the victims at Santa Barbara Harbor, other divers shared memories of the doomed ship and its final passengers.
Corbett said she had stayed aboard the Conception about six times and remembered Finstad as enthusiastic and always smiling. She and other dive leaders brought microscopes, offered details about marine creatures and shared diving stories over hot cocoa in the boat’s galley.
Finstad’s mother founded the family’s diving company in the 1970s, and instilled an early love of the ocean and marine life in her children.
Finstad grew up diving and studied marine biology at UC Santa Cruz. She had worked as a research diver for the Australian Institute of Marine Science and wrote a restoration guidebook for the California Coastal Commission.
“She has an extraordinary depth of knowledge,” said Harmeling, her brother. “She has a passion for the earth, and a love for marine life.”
Finstad had dived in the area near Santa Cruz Island hundreds of times, and the trip was one of the company’s most popular, Harmeling said. The company organized five to six dives in the Channel Islands area every year, according to its website.
“It’s one of the best — it’s not only convenient, but extraordinary diving,” Harmeling said. “You get coral, you get beautiful fish, you get kelp forests. You also get some larger marine life, things like sea otters, that are super fun to play with. It’s amazing.”
Finstad and her husband recently had returned from a multiyear sailing trip through the Pacific. On a blog on the company’s website, she chronicled the beauty and monotony of life on the ocean, “her colors changing, her energy moody with moon tide currents, thundering waves and glassy reflection.”
“What were we doing with our lives?” Finstad wrote before they embarked. “Dragging your feet is no way to climb a mountain; holding your breath is no way to dive.”
Times staff writer Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.