(AP) — A senior environmental scientist for the state of California and her husband were on the dive boat Conception when it went up in flames off the coast of Southern California Monday, officials say.
Scientist Adrian Dahood-Fritz worked for the state’s Ocean Protection Council, leading efforts to manage a network of marine protected areas, according to a statement from Gov. Gavin Newsom. She took the trip with her husband, Andrew Fritz.
"Adrian led the state's efforts to manage California's network of marine protected areas, and she cared deeply about the ocean and biodiversity," Newsom said. "She embodied marine conservation and was a highly accomplished and respected scientific researcher."
The couple reportedly moved to Sacramento from Texas this past April. Newsom says that he joins the couple’s family, friends and colleagues during this difficult time, and that he’s grateful to the first responders.
A family of five from Stockton is also presumed dead in the fire. Michael Quitasol, his daughters Evan, Nicole and Angela Quitasol and their stepmother Fernisa Sison were experienced divers and were aboard the boat to celebrate Michael Quitasol’s birthday.
Based on the findings of the investigation, California will take steps to prevent future boat fires, Newsom says.
The boat’s captain and four other crewmembers survived the fire, and tried to rescue the 34 others who died but were driven back by flames, smoke and head, federal authorities and the boat’s owner said.
The crew told investigators a "harrowing story" about the moments after a blaze erupted aboard the Conception before dawn Monday as it lay at anchor off the Channel Islands, Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday.
Speculation has grown about whether the captain and four other crew members who survived had tried to help others before jumping from the flaming vessel. Authorities said those sleeping in bunks below the main deck were trapped by the fire.
But crew members told investigators that by the time they saw flames, it was too late.
Crew members jumped from the bridge area to the main deck — one breaking a leg in the effort — and tried to get through the double doors of the galley but they were aflame.
That cut off both escape routes for the 33 passengers and a crew member in the bunkroom: a stairway and an escape hatch that exited in the galley area.
The survivors used a skiff at Conception's stern to reach a nearby boat and two then returned to see if they could rescue any other survivors but none were found, Homendy said.
Fritzler said the experience has traumatized the survivors.
"They're breaking down," he said. "They're seeking counseling. It's a very tough time for them."
Searchers recovered 33 bodies and continued searching in the waters just off Santa Cruz Island for the lone remaining victim.
Meanwhile, Truth Aquatics filed a lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles that uses a pre-Civil War provision of maritime law to limit their liability from any victims' claims. The lawsuit argues the company and owners Glen and Dana Fritzler made the boat seaworthy and the craft was properly manned and equipped.
Coast Guard records show the boat passed its two most recent inspections with no safety violations.
Previous patrons said Truth Aquatics and the captains of its three boats were very safety-conscious.
The NTSB is just a few days into what will be a lengthy investigation that seeks to determine the cause of the fire and identify potential safety enhancements to avoid future disasters. Investigators are examining potential ignition sources for the fire, including electronics, kitchen stoves and the vessel's wiring systems. Investigators know photography equipment, batteries and other electronics were stored and plugged in on the Conception.
"We are not ruling anything out at this point," Homendy said.
None of the names of the victims have been released by authorities but many have surfaced through relatives, friends and employers.
CapRadio’s Rich Ibarra contributed to this report.