Bodies of All But One of 34 Victims in California Dive Boat Fire Are Found

FILE PHOTO: Patricia Beitzinger and Neal Baltz are shown posing during a dive boat trip in Palau in this June 2019 photo. Courtesy Popi Heron/Handout via REUTERS

Divers have recovered the bodies of all but one of the 34 people who were killed when the dive boat they were sleeping in erupted into flames early this week off Santa Cruz Island, California, officials said on Wednesday.

Details of the victims here who ranged in age from 17 to 60, emerged while authorities worked to identify the remains of the 33 people recovered so far, using a DNA analysis tool that is primarily employed in war zones to generate results quickly.

A family of five, a teacher and his daughter, and a diving instructor and marine biologist were among those believed to have perished in the incident, according to social media posts.

The charred wreckage of the Conception now rests 60 feet (18 m) below the surface. Divers were still searching for the remains of one person, said Amber Anderson of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.

None of the victims has yet been officially identified.

The boat’s captain and four crew members were above deck when the blaze broke out early on Monday and escaped in an inflatable boat. A crew member who was killed was apparently sleeping below deck with the passengers at the time.

Federal safety officials promised an exhaustive investigation of the fire on Tuesday.

National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy said 16 investigators were already assigned to the probe, including specialists in operations, engineering, survival factors and fire analysis.

The investigators will collect all perishable evidence while on scene for at least a week, she said, but the Conception will remain on the ocean floor until a site survey is completed.

Among the other victims were Patricia Beitzinger and Neal Baltz, a couple from Arizona, who were passionate about diving and “died doing something that they loved together,” Baltz’s father John told local media.

Popi Heron, a 54-year-old finance professional from the San Francisco Bay area, had met them earlier this summer during a dive boat trip in the South Pacific and they had hit it off instantly, she said in a phone interview.

“Even though I didn’t know them very long, their humanity, their beauty as people, their passion as divers, they’re really just wonderful people and I am really going to miss them,” she said.

The couple had invited Heron to join them on the Labor Day trip aboard the Conception, but she declined on concerns over the water being cold off California.

SOURCE: Reuters, Maria Caspani