A 41-year-old marine biologist whose life’s work was dedicated to the sea is believed to be among the victims of a deadly boat fire in southern California.
Kristy Finstad was helping lead a dive trip on a three-day excursion when the boat became engulfed in flames in the early morning hours of Monday.
Her brother, Brett Harmeling, posted on Facebook about his sister’s involvement hours after news of the fire broke.
“Please pray for my sister Kristy!!” he wrote, adding to the post that he was feeling “hopeful.”
He later wrote that the family has not received a “final word” on Finstad.
“However, it is likely she has transitioned to be with the good Lord,” he said. “Thank you all for your unconditional love and support during this incredibly tragic time.È
The U.S. Coast Guard said that 20 bodies have been recovered so far. The bodies of four to six others remain in the wreckage deep in the water, but it’s not safe enough for dive crews to extract them.
The search and rescue effort has been suspended and a recovery phase is now underway.
No identities have been made public at this point.
According to her brother, Finstad had years of experience in the water. She grew up diving and had an “extraordinary depth of knowledge” thanks, in part, to her marine biology studies at University of California Santa Cruz, he told the Los Angeles Times.
Finstad is listed online as a co-owner of her family’s scuba diving company, Worldwide Diving Adventures, which chartered the 75-foot boat.
The dive trip was headed for the Channel Islands and due back in Santa Barbara by Monday evening.
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Harmeling said his sister had dived in the area hundreds of times. Her mother founded the diving company in the 1970s.
Harmeling said the trip to the Channel Islands, which happens several times a year, is one of the company’s most popular and something Finstad was quite familiar with.
He described Finstad as “extremely strong-willed and very adventurous” and said, “if there was a one per cent chance of her making it, she would have made it.”
The fire broke out at around 3:15 a.m. local time as nearly all of the 39 passengers and crew on board were asleep below deck.
Five of the six crew members bunking on the top deck managed to escape the burning boat. They were able to take a dinghy to a nearby boat for shelter.
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In a panicked mayday call from the Conception, the Coast Guard Centre in Los Angeles could barely decipher the person on the other end.
Gasping for help, the caller repeated “mayday.”
“I can’t breathe,” the caller said.
Witnesses to the fire reported hearing several explosions. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown suggested scuba or propane tanks on the boat may have blown up, exacerbating the fire.
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At a press conference Tuesday, officials said there was nothing to suggest that an explosion preceded the fire.
However, the cause has not been determined.
A team of engineers and specialists from the National Transportation Safety Board have been called to investigate the blaze.
The incident is being considered one of the area’s worst maritime disasters.
— With files from the Associated Press and Reuters