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Santa Barbara remembers 34 lives lost in Conception boat disaster on 2-year anniversary

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Members of Santa Barbara City Hall and the Waterfront District gathered Thursday to remember the 34 people who died two years ago in the tragic Conception boat fire. 

After the ceremony, friends, family and community members also gathered to remember the victims and leave flowers at the memorial plaque.

Elaina Botos and Nina Adamic came to pay their respects to Diana Adamic, Berenice Felipa, Steve Salika and Tia Salika-Adamic. Steve and Diana were the parents of Tia and Berenice was Tia's best friend.

“This shouldn’t have happened," said Botos. "There should have been somebody awake on the boat. There should have been a hatch for people to get through for safety.

“A fire alarm,” added Adamic.

Botos continued, “This shouldn’t have happened. Tia shouldn’t have lost her life. All of the kids. There were families that lost everyone in their family.”

Back on September 2, 2019, the Conception dive boat was out at the Channel Islands for a Labor Day Weekend adventure when it turned deadly.

A fire started during the early morning hours and blocked the only exit out from below deck where the 33 guests and one crew member were sleeping. 

The boat eventually sank about 20 yards off of Santa Cruz Island in 65-foot deep waters.

All 34 victims were determined to have died of smoke inhalation. Their identities were released by the sheriff's office the following week.

“We never got to say goodbye," said Adamic. "[My sister] Diana wasn’t sick. This was a tragedy. This was an irresponsibility of someone who should have had access points to get out to escape. But they had no chance of surviving for themselves.”

Botos added the four were avid divers who traveled the world diving. Their favorite spots were the Channel Islands and off the coast of Belize.

“This is their thing," said Botos. "This is what they did, their passion. In fact, it was for Tia’s 17th birthday.”

“And today is her birthday," added Adamic. "She died on her birthday.”

Since the disaster, there have been investigations and several liability lawsuits: one filed by the widow of a victim and another filed by a crew member who attempted to rescue passengers.

The Conception’s sister boats, the Vision and the Truth, were sold to a new company, Channel Island Expeditions. Both boats have received safety upgrades by the previous and current owners in hopes to prevent a potential similar disaster.

Garrett Kababik is the CEO of Channel Island Expeditions. He said the Vision has a self-containing firebox they are using to charge batteries and devices. They also added extra hatched.

“Another thing that [former owner] Glen installed prior to us buying the boats," said Kababik, "was a hatch on either side and on the Truth on the forward portion of the boat. These egress to the weather decks so it’s not into a compartment.”

New safety measures were also introduced to prevent a similar tragedy from taking place.

The Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act was signed into law in January 2021 as a result of the Conception boat fire. The law requires more fire protection equipment, crew training, better handling of lithium ion batteries and at least two avenues of escape from a passenger vessel.

Unfortunately, the cause of the deadly fire has not yet been found.

Now, a new lawsuit has emerged.

The 34 victims' family members are suing the U.S. Coast Guard for not inspecting the boat properly which could have saved lives.

Adamic said the families aren't looking for money, but rather safety changes. “If something like this happens again," said Adamic, "and they had this as their warning and they still continue this way that they’re going to lose their businesses and their livelihoods also, which is nothing compared to losing lives.”

The boat’s captain is also facing 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter for not having a night watchman that could have seen and put out the fire early on. 

Two years later Santa Barbara’s mayor and other members of the community placed flowers to remember. The memorial to all 34 victims is at the end of the harbor’s breakwater.  

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Scott Sheahen

Scott Sheahen is a reporter for NewsChannel 3-12. To learn more about Scott, click here.


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