For the Quitasol family, the Labor Day weekend scuba diving trip to the Channel Islands was supposed to be a celebration at sea.
Three sisters — Angela, Nicole and Evan Quitasol — set out Saturday with their father, Michael Quitasol, and stepmother, Fernisa Sison. They were celebrating Michael’s birthday with a luxurious three-day excursion that was to include diving amid the kelp forests, nature lectures and gourmet meals.
Evan was a nurse in the emergency department of a Stockton-area hospital, Rosas said. Nicole was a bartender who worked in a lounge in Coronado, which allowed her to live near her beloved ocean. Angela was a middle school science teacher with the Lincoln Unified School District in Stockton.
“They were the most kind, most loving people I’ve ever met, and I’m not just saying that because they’re family,” Rosas said. “The way they interacted with anyone they ever came across, they were wonderful.”
Most of the victims were believed to be from Northern California, authorities said Tuesday. Much remained unknown about the passengers, but Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said he believed a teenager as young as 17 and adults in their 60s were on board.
On Tuesday, officials confirmed what the loved ones of the lost had suspected but dreaded: that there was little hope of finding anyone else alive after one of California’s worst maritime disasters in recent history.
At an afternoon news conference at the Santa Barbara County sheriff’s headquarters, a reporter asked authorities: “At this point, are you assuming that all 34 passengers did not make it?”
“That would be a correct assumption,” said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester, her face somber.
The Conception, a 75-foot vessel once described by California Diving News as “California’s crown jewel of live-aboard dive boats,” caught fire about 20 yards off the north shore of Santa Cruz Island and now lies upside down on the ocean floor in about 62 feet of water, authorities said.
The cause of the blaze remains under investigation.
The remains of 20 people — 11 female and nine male — have been found. Fourteen people remain missing.
The sheriff said that authorities have a list of passengers who were supposed to be on the boat and are working to confirm that they were on board. Authorities had not released victims’ names as of Tuesday. Brown said most of the passengers appear to have been from around Santa Cruz and San Jose.
In the hours after the ship went down, news of their loved ones’ fate gradually reached the victims’ relatives.
Chris Rosas and his wife, Susana, learned about the fire midday Monday and rushed from their Stockton home to Santa Barbara, where they waited at a family assistance center at the Earl Warren Showgrounds.
Evan Quitasol and her father and stepmother had worked at Kaiser Permanente medical facilities in the Stockton area.
“On behalf of Kaiser Permanente, we are so saddened by the tragic deaths of our colleagues Fernisa Sison, Michael Quitasol, and Evan Quitasol, along with all those aboard the Conception,” Corwin Harper, senior vice president and area manager for Kaiser Permanente Central Valley, said in a statement. “Our sympathies are with their family and friends at this time.”
On Tuesday, flowers were affixed to a fence near Santa Barbara Harbor, from which the Conception departed. Candles burned nearby.
On the fence, someone had hung a red and white flag meant to signify that a diver is in the water, inscribed with the words, “Fair winds and following seas; we’ll remember you on every dive.” A message written on a pair of blue diving flippers read, “We love you Conception.”
Jenny Stafford of Santa Barbara, who stood vigil by the memorial all Monday night, said that several relatives of victims had visited the site.
“A man fell to his knees and sobbed uncontrollably,” Stafford said, referring to one victim’s father and sister who came from Chicago.
A young woman who only gave her first name, Olivia, visited the memorial Tuesday morning. She said that her older sister, age 26, whom she declined to name, was the sixth crew member aboard the Conception.
Her family had called around frantically on Monday, she said, only to learn late in the day that her sister was below deck when the fire broke out and did not survive.
“It makes no sense,” Olivia said, her voice breaking. “It’s not fair — not fair at all.”
She hugged a woman who had placed a bouquet of flowers against the fence and walked away, a gaggle of television crews trailing after her.
Family members told WKRC-TV in Cincinnati that Allie Kurtz, 26, a crew member on the Conception, had grown up in Chicago, moved to Los Angeles to work in the movie industry, then focused on becoming a dive instructor, the television station reported.
Culver City Councilman Alex Fisch on Tuesday night adjourned a council meeting in honor of his memory of his close friend Charles “Chuck” McIlvain, who was on board the Conception. McIlvain, whom he described as a “radiant bright light in many people’s lives,” worked at Sony Pictures Imageworks in Culver City for 15 years, he said.
Fisch saw the news about the fire Monday morning. Later that day, he checked Facebook and saw a post someone had written mentioning that McIlvain was going diving over the weekend in the Channel Islands.
“My jaw dropped,” Fisch said. “I looked at the comments below the Facebook post, and people were freaking out and wondering if they were on that charter.”
Fisch sent McIlvain and McIlvain’s wife, Jasmine, a text message asking if they were OK. Jasmine texted back. Her husband had been on the boat.
“It was a total gut punch,” Fisch said. McIlvain, who loved diving, mountain biking and snowboarding and recently had celebrated turning 44, was “someone who people cherished every moment with.”
“I can’t emphasize enough the unique combination of creativity, intelligence and wonderful presence that he had,” Fisch said.
Also among the missing are two students of Pacific Collegiate School, a public charter school in Santa Cruz, according to parents of students at the school.
“Our hearts and prayers are with the families of the victims and those that are missing, particularly those of our students,” the school wrote in a statement.
“Right now, our priority as a school is to support our students, staff and families.”
Also on board was Kristy Finstad, a 41-year-old marine biologist who was helping lead the weekend expedition for her family’s scuba company, Worldwide Diving Adventures. She had dived in the area near Santa Cruz Island hundreds of times, said her brother, Brett Harmeling.
“She has an extraordinary depth of knowledge,” Harmeling said. “Every time I’m on a dive trip with her, she goes above and beyond. She’ll go underwater and point out something, and then after the dive, she’ll explain exactly what it was and why it’s important.”
Sheriff Brown said that officials have received more than 100 calls from family or friends who believe their loved ones were aboard the Conception.
Investigators are comparing information from the callers with the list of passengers on the boat.
Family members have been asked for DNA samples, collected using cheek swabs, to compare with the bodies.
Suzanne Grimmesey, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Department of Behavioral Wellness, said that more than 20 families from across the state and the East Coast have come to an assistance center set up by the county for relatives of the victims.
“They’re in a state of shock,” she said. “For families to hear there weren’t survivors was incredibly difficult.”
Times staff writers Colleen Shalby, Leila Miller and Hannah Fry, Mark Puente, Soumya Karlamangla and Laura J. Nelson contributed to this report.