Family of five celebrating birthday presumed dead in deadly California dive boat fire

A family of five celebrating the father's birthday were among the 34 presumed dead in the tragic dive boat fire off the Santa Barbara coast this Labor Day weekend - and as of Tuesday morning, crews had recovered the bodies of all but one of them. 

A broken-hearted mother said her three daughters, their father and his wife were among those presumed dead.

Susana Rosas of Stockton, California, posted on Facebook that her three daughters - Evan, Nicole and Angela Quitasol - were with their father Michael Quitasol and stepmother Fernisa Sison. They had planned a diving trip to celebrate Michael's birthday aboard the dive boat Conception, which went down in flames early Monday morning.

Evan Quitasol was a nurse at St. Joseph's Medical Center of Stockton, where her father and Sison had worked after attending nursing school at San Joaquin Delta College.

"We were extremely saddened to learn the tragic news that one of our nurses was on board the Conception," Dignity Health said in a statement.

Majority of victims from San Jose, Santa Cruz

Sison also worked at the college teaching first-year nursing students full-time in 2005 and 2006 and later as an adjunct instructor, according to the school's spokesman, Alex Breitler.

"Everybody's devastated. It's a totally unexpected thing that happened," said Dominic Selga, Sison's ex-husband. "What caused the fire, that's the big question, that's what we all want to know."

A team from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived Tuesday to investigate the cause of the tragedy.

"I am 100% confident that our investigators will determine the cause of this fire, why it occurred, how it occurred and what is needed to prevent it from happening again," NTSB member Jennifer Homendy told reporters.

Rosas' husband, Chris, told Fox News in Sacramento that Nicole Quitasol worked as a bartender in Coronado near San Diego and her sister, Angela, was a science teacher at a middle school in Stockton.

The sisters were on the trip to celebrate their dad's birthday, Chris Rosas said. He described them as "the most kind, most loving people I've ever met - and I'm not just saying that because they're family. The way they interacted with anyone they came across, they were wonderful. They were outstanding girls. That's about all I can tell you right now."

Nicole worked for a Coronado restaurant called Nicky Rottens. A GoFundMe page the restaurant started to help the family described Nicole as "an adventurous & loving soul."

All three girls had been bridesmaids at their sister Evita's wedding two weeks ago.

"She loved the outdoors, loved animals, loved and lived by the sea," Rosas said of Nicole, who lived in the beach resort town Coronado. Rosas and his wife left their home in Stockton for Santa Barbara Monday when they heard the news.

The entire family were "outstanding citizens," cousin Julissa Garcia told KCRA. "They're just beautiful, special. They did everything right. I don't understand." 

They bonded over diving: Father, daughter among those who died aboard Conception

The fire broke out shortly after 3 a.m. Monday as the boat sat anchored in Platt's Harbor off Santa Cruz Island. The Conception was on a three-day excursion to the chain of rugged, wind-swept isles that form Channel Islands National Park in the Pacific Ocean west of Los Angeles. The "majority" of the victims lived in San Jose and Santa Cruz, Santa County Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown said at a news conference. 

Among those on board were some students from Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz, a public charter school for grades 7 through 12, the school said.

Also below decks was Kristy Finstad, a marine biologist and co-owner of Worldwide Diving Adventures in Santa Cruz, which chartered the boat. Finstad was leading the scuba tour.

Finstad knew the area well, having done hundreds of dives in the Channel Islands, where she first swam with her father as a toddler. She first dove with a tank off Mexico at age 9, according to her company's website. She had also worked for the city of Santa Cruz for 15 years in the Water Department, while also working for the dive company her mother founded in the 1970s. 

Mayor Martine Watkins issued a statement calling the devastation to Santa Cruz just "horrific." 

Raymond "Scott" Chan, a physics teacher at American High School in Fremont, also was on board with his daughter, Kendra. Both lived in Los Altos. 

"He had a lot of passions in life and shared them with his family, and so they were planning on doing a great vacation and a trip that they loved," said Kim Wallace, Fremont Unified School District superintendent.

ABC affiliate KNXV-TV in Phoenix reported that an Arizona couple, Patricia Beitzinger and Neal Baltz, were also on the trip.

"They went to heaven doing something they loved together," Neal's father, John Baltz, told the station.

The Conception, based in Santa Barbara Harbor, was owned by Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics, founded in 1974. A memorial at the harbor quickly grew as mourners came to pay their respects.

Coast Guard records show the boat's owners quickly addressed all safety violations from the last five years.

The only survivors were believed to be the captain and four crew members who were awake on the upper decks. They jumped off the front of the vessel, swam to an inflatable boat at the back and steered it to a ship anchored nearby.

But flames moved so quickly through the 75-foot vessel that it blocked both a narrow stairway and an escape hatch leading to the upper decks, giving those below virtually no chance of escaping, authorities said.


Associated Press writers Stephanie Dazio, John Antczak and John Rogers in Los Angeles, Julie Watson in San Diego and Janie Har in San Francisco contributed to this story. KTVU's Henry Lee, Azenith Smith and Maureen Naylor contributed to this report. This story was written in Oakland, Calif.