‘The whole city is depressed’: Santa Barbara grieves after Conception boat fire

A girl playing the harp
CJ Andelman, 12, plays the harp at the memorial at Santa Barbara Harbor Wednesday morning.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Ever since a massive fire claimed 34 lives aboard the Conception, Celine Nasser has barely had a break.

The 21-year-old has been fielding a flood of phone calls at Truth Aquatics, the company that operated the ill-fated diving boat. From its site in Santa Barbara Harbor, Nasser has been canceling boat trips and redirecting families of victims who call in to ask for information.

As she does this, she mourns.

Her friend, Allie Kurtz, 26, is the only one of the boat’s six crew members to perish in the tragedy. Nasser met Kurtz’s family this week, and instead of being angry, she said, they thanked the staff for giving their daughter an experience that she loved.

“When I met Allie’s family, it sunk in,” said Nasser.

Memorial for boat fire
Santa Barbara resident Britany Martin and her 2-year-old son Theo at the memorial.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Coast Guard officials have recovered the bodies of 33 people who died in a massive fire that started as the 75-foot vessel was anchored off the coast of Santa Cruz Island on Labor Day. As of Wednesday, one person was still missing, but rescuers have said there are no signs of additional survivors.

The fire has left Santa Barbara residents grieving. Many have ties to the tight-knit maritime community. Some wrestle with associating a tragedy of such magnitude with diving, an activity that brought such joy.

Throughout the day on Wednesday, hundreds paused to pay their respects at a makeshift memorial in Santa Barbara Harbor just yards away from the space where the Conception would usually be docked.

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.

Thirty-four candles were lined up in a row, representing each victim of the fire. Someone had placed a framed copy of the poem “The Ocean” by Nathaniel Hawthorne next to a photograph showing a man with his arm around Kurtz. “I love you Allie – and you know I always will! I’ll miss you forever,” it read.


“The whole city is depressed,” said Mark Bright, a local who stopped by on his bicycle route.

Local residents have tried to lend support in small ways. CJ Andelman, 12, arrived at the memorial with a harp. Onlookers filmed her as she sat on a bench and played “You Are My Sunshine” and “Silent Night.”

Her mother, Courtney, said her daughters learned how to scuba dive last December and are homeschooled because the family spends much of the year doing adventure sports and traveling.

“We’re part of the community and it could have been us,” she said.

Officials have recovered the bodies of 33 people who died in a massive fire aboard the Conception. One person remains missing.

Carla McClure, 59, stopped by the memorial during her morning run. She said she hadn’t been able to sleep after the disaster, disturbed by how no passengers were able to survive.

“I’m starting to hear bits and pieces about the people,” she said. “The whole thing is so tragic — I don’t know how to cope with it.”

Storeowners at the harbor are trying to process their grief. Lisa Clagg, who has owned a small market by the docks since 1985, said she has felt overwhelmed by the presence of dozens of law enforcement officials who have come to conduct search and rescue operations.

Five crew members survived the fire aboard the diving boat the Conception early Monday because they were stationed on the deck rather than below it, officials said.

“My heart goes out to everybody,” she said. “All of this is a reminder of how life is so fragile.”

Many locals have come to the defense of Truth Aquatics, which has a respected reputation in the diving community. Dave Huebner, 35, a free diver in Santa Barbara who has worked on the Conception as a deckhand, said that some of the best times of his life were helping take scuba divers, kayakers and others out to sea.

He is disturbed by suggestions that the tragedy was a result of any failure by Truth Aquatics to follow safety procedures. The U.S. Coast Guard has said the Conception had passed all recent inspections.

Candles at Santa Barbara memorial
Dee Dee Lane places handmade Rosaries around candles for each of the 34 victims of the dive boat Conception.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

“You can look left and right before you cross the street and still get hit by a bus. I think it’s like that,” he said. “I do know the group and the boat. ... They’re not trying to cut corners.”

He heard the news of the fire around 8:30 on Monday morning from a group chat for a free diving club he belongs to.

“I’ve been a mess ever since,” he said.

Authorities said they got word of the boat fire off Santa Cruz Island in Southern California from a mayday call around 3:30 a.m.

Nasser said that besides the phone calls she has received from family members, people from all across the U.S. have been calling to offer their support to the company. Locals have also been bringing staff members food.

“Everyone has been taking care of us,” she said.