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Longtime diver canceled trip aboard Conception just weeks before boat fire

Dale Sheckler
Dale Sheckler holds his diving gear in the garage of his Torrance home. Sheckler The longtime diver planned to join the Labor Day weekend excurion aboard the Conception.
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Dale Sheckler, 62, had planned to join the Labor Day weekend excursion aboard the Conception. The longtime diver was drawn to marine life and was preparing to take photos for an upcoming article in California Diving News.

The trip had been on his calendar until eight weeks ago, when hip surgery derailed his plans.

For the record:
10:17 PM, Sep. 07, 2019 A previous version of this article gave Kristy Finstad’s age as 34. She was 41.

Then, on Labor Day, a massive fire erupted aboard the Conception as the 75-foot vessel was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, killing 34. One victim is still missing, but presumed dead, authorities said Wednesday.

Conception
May 2019 drone photo of the Conception off the Santa Barbara Coast.
(Don Barthelmess/Los Angeles Times)

For decades, Sheckler oversaw California Diving News, which he launched with his wife in 1984 — just three years after the Conception first launched. In the more than 30 years since then, the Torrance resident estimates that he has made 100 dives from the boat. He last boarded it in July 2018.

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When his brother-in-law sent him a text Monday morning about what is now being described as the worst maritime disaster in modern California history, Sheckler said he was horrified. He knows Jerry Boylan, the captain who was able to escape the fire, and knew Kristy Finstad, the marine biologist who helped lead the Labor Day excursion, who did not escape.

“She was very cheerful and leader-oriented,” Sheckler said of the 41-year-old. “She cared about the people who were on her trips. She cared about their enjoyment.”

A commercial diving boat caught fire near the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island, Calif., early Monday. Many aboard the boat were believed to be sleeping below deck when the fire broke out in the pre-dawn hours.

Sheckler, who still writes for the magazine he sold a few years ago, described the Conception as an “excellently maintained vessel” with a quality crew. Glen Fritzler, the owner of Truth Aquatics, the company that ran the Conception, won a California Scuba Service Award last year.

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In Sheckler’s experience, he said, almost immediately after boarding the boat — and often before leaving the dock — the crew always gave an extensive safety briefing. He said he never feared the threat of fire while aboard the Conception or any other dive boat in California.

“They tell you what to do in the event of a sinking. They talk about where the fire extinguishers are available,” he said. “That’s the only mention of fire.”

Investigators are still searching for answers as to what started the blaze, and why those on board were unable to escape.


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