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Dive Boat Tragedy Is Sadly Familiar for Bay Area Residents

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It was supposed to be a great trip, until it wasn’t.

It was supposed to be a great night, until it wasn’t.

The story of the dive boat fire has a haunting feel for those here in the Bay Area. It all sounds tragically familiar to locals still reeling from the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, and many of those aboard the dive boat that became an inferno in the early morning hours Monday were actually from the Bay Area. It’s impossible not to make the connection, to not acutely feel the heartbreak as it reverberates up the coast.

A Labor Day weekend dive boat trip went terribly wrong when flames engulfed the vessel. Aside from five crew members who were able to make it to safety, the remaining people on board have been found dead or are presumed to be. As a makeshift memorial began to form at a Santa Barbara dock entrance Monday night, the U.S. Coast Guard announced that 25 bodies had been found. The search was called off Tuesday for the additional nine passengers but as of Wednesday morning, eight of the remaining nine bodies were located. According to a statement made by Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, the victims ranged in age between 17 and 60 — among them was a family of five.

Brown said:

“The majority of the people on this trip appeared to have been from the Santa Cruz, San Jose, Bay Area region.”

The Ghost Ship fire took the lives of 36 people on Dec. 2, 2016. The Conception dive boat fire in Southern California presumably took the lives of 34 people Sept. 2, 2019. The tragedies were thirty-three months apart, to the day, and in both cases, the victims did not knowingly put themselves in harm’s way. If those on the boat anticipated any danger, it would have been out in the sea while they dove, not while they were catching some sleep before the last day of their trip.

The Conception dive boat before and after the tragic Labor Day fire that claimed the lives of 33 passengers and one crew member on Monday, September 2, 2019 near Santa Cruz island. Photo compilation courtesy of D Star News.

The cause of the Labor Day fire is unknown and, much like the Ghost Ship, may never be determined. What is certain is that as the dust settles and victims’ loved ones move past these first painful days, some sort of answer and accountability will be demanded. And rightfully so.

In the same moments that news unfolds and victims are identified, a jury is deliberating the fate of Derick Almena and Max Harris in the Ghost Ship trial, where both men could face up to 39 years for 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. If the legal drama surrounding the warehouse fire is any predictor of what’s to come in the fallout of the Conception fire, there will be months, and likely years, of debate over who if anyone is ultimately responsible for the 34 lives lost Monday.

Will the crew members who escaped on a dingy and called for help from a nearby boat be put on trial for their actions? Will Truth Aquatics, the company that owned the boat and organizes dive trips, be held responsible for whatever safety risks were present? It is reported that the stairwell and escape hatch were engulfed in flames and that those sleeping in the tight bunk quarters below were trapped — will the tragedy inspire new safety regulations for similar boats? Does any responsibility for the 34 deaths fall on the National Transportation Safety Board, the city of Santa Barbara or the state?  Who knows.

What we do know is that family members and friends will look deeply at each of those entities and they’ll want somebody or multiple somebodies to answer for the loss of their loved ones. The families may never feel a true sense of justice, as we’ve seen in the aftermath of the Oakland fire. The mixture of intense grief and an insatiable need for accountability in a complex situation with myriad of unknowns and no one particular person to blame is a frustration we here in the Bay Area are all too familiar with.

A memorial to the 34 victims of the Conception dive boat fire set up at a Santa Barbara, Calif. dock in the hours after the the Labor Day 2019 blaze. Photo courtesy of New York Post.

To all those who lost someone they loved Monday, we send our deepest condolences. These first days are immeasurably rough but the years to come will try your grace and strength. On a personal note, as someone who sat in the courtroom during Ghost Ship family impact statements, I know no amount of thoughts and prayers will ever make this okay. The best we can hope for is that some day those families find answers to their questions and that maybe, just maybe, further down that road they find some peace.

Rest in peace. Rest in power.


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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.