The 34 victims of the Conception commercial dive boat fire were remembered Friday evening at a vigil near the Santa Barbara waterfront.
More than 500 community members descended onto the lawn at Santa Barbara’s Chase Palm Park along East Cabrillo Boulevard to grieve, support one another and heal together.
People placed white roses at the base of the park’s Great Meadow Stage to honor the victims of Monday's fire and sinking of the 75-foot vessel based out of the Santa Barbara Harbor.
Local elected officials and representatives of the incident joint command, including Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, Santa Barbara County Fire District Chief Mark Hartwig and U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester, presented a memorial wreath.
Mourners shared hugs, wiped away tears and embraced as Santa Barbara resident Jackson Gillies performed “Stand By Me.”
“Our community has faced too many tragedies,” said Don Barthelmess, a dive instructor and former director of the Marine Diving Technology Program at Santa Barbara City College. “We as a community are not alone. We know how to begin the long and difficult process … it begins with loving each other.”
Barthelmess encouraged attendees to “reach out” and “hug each other,” as well as “listen and understand the raw emotions.”
The diving community is bound together with the common love for the ocean, he said.
Seagulls flew over the park when Barthelmess spoke.
Divers share unique experiences and thrills such as sliding into a cold, damp wetsuit in the early morning hours and the “peace and silence of the underwater world,” he said. Divers witness the “grace and beauty” of manta rays, feeling weightless underwater and “almost perfect” photographs of animals found in the ocean, Barthelmess said.
“We are a tight-knit community,” he said. “We love and support each other, just like our ocean.”
“The diving community in Santa Barbara has no borders. We are all blessed and proud to be part of it.”
Authorities said Friday that they had identified 23 of the 33 bodies recovered, and they released the names of 22 victims whose families had been notified. Two people resided along Santa Barbara County’s South Coast: Wei Tan, 26, of Goleta and Alexandra “Allie” Kurtz, 26, of Santa Barbara. Others hailed from across California as well as Arizona and Tennessee. The victims were a varied group, ranging in age from a teen to people in their 60s.
The Conception was anchored early Monday morning near Santa Cruz Island on the last day of a scuba diving trip when it caught fire and later sunk, killing 33 passengers and a crew member who were in the below-deck bunk area. Five crew members survived.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Coroner's Office has received the bodies of 33 of the 34 people who died, authorities said Friday morning. Dive teams continued to search Friday for the missing person.
On Friday evening, representatives from the county’s Community Wellness Team, maritime community and chaplains offered their condolences at the vigil.
Rabbi Daniel Brenner performed the ceremonial sounding of the shofar — a ram's horn — before leading a moment of silence. He invited onlookers to open their hearts “to the pain and love” they have felt during the past week.
“It’s a sound that awakens our souls,” said Brenner, the Santa Barbara Police Department chaplain and rabbi of Congregation B’nai B’rith in Santa Barbara. “It is the voice of emotions that can not be expressed in words.”
During the moment of silence, the ultra-loud train horn sounded as it traveled along the route adjacent to the park.
“I do hear the train passing behind us,” said Suzanne Grimmesey, chief quality care and strategy officer for Santa Barbara County Behavioral Wellness. “What a symbol of life. If only we could pick and choose our moments of silence without interruptions, but we all know that isn’t possible.”
Speakers at the one-hour gathering also included the Rev. Kate Wiebe and Very Rev. Fr. Jon-Stephen Hedges, a chaplain and member of the community wellness team.
Wiebe said the Conception disaster is a “devastating incident that is the exact opposite of what the adventure is meant to be.”
She outlined local counseling services and told people to “embrace the support.” Counselors were available onsite at the vigil.
“We do not have to grieve without hope,” Wiebe said. “Remember you are not alone. This is hard because it matters, and it’s not a journey anyone would choose. We will make it together.”
One by one, people gently placed their flowers into a basket just before sunset. First responders, along with children, residents of all ages and others, slowly walked toward the front of the stage. They observed the 34 scuba diving tanks and candles, and they listened to Laurie Rasmussen play the harp.
“These 34 lights and scuba cylinders represent our brother and sister divers who did not make it home that night,” Barthelmess told the crowd. “They were also our friends and family members. Our common love of diving binds us together for eternity.”
Dolphins are the icon of the City of Santa Barbara, he said.
“When you see a dolphin,” he said. “Remember our brothers and sisters that perish in the sea … these lights on stage will forever shine deep within our hearts.”