2 Singaporeans among California boat fire victims
From a veteran water polo coach to a Singaporean data scientist, the passengers aboard the ill-fated Conception dive boat were linked by their love for the water.
Here are the victims who have been identified so far from the deadly fire that engulfed the vessel, killing 34 people off California’s wind-swept Channel Islands during their three-day excursion over Labor Day weekend.
VETERAN WATER POLO COACH
Before Justin Dignam, 58, founded a payroll company he coached water polo at universities.
Dignam was a veteran water polo player who played at University of Richmond before coaching a team at Iona College and becoming the head coach of Wesleyan University’s men’s team, according to Team USA Water Polo. He also served as a referee.
Big Fish Employer Services President Jeff Hill called Dignam a “fearless” CEO in a letter posted to the company’s website. Hill said he was heartbroken but promised to carry on in leading the company to honor what Dignam started when he founded it in 2003 in Placentia, California.
“With dedication in the face of any adversity, we will carry on as the capable team that Justin relied upon, just as he would expect,” Hill wrote.
Dignam is from Anaheim Hills, California, and is survived by a wife and two children.
He continued to play water polo in the masters community and showed true passion for the sport, said Greg Mescall, communications director for USA Water Polo.
Dignam “would spot you across a room and as he headed your way, you would just see a big smile forming on his face,” Mescall said in an email. “He’ll be missed by many, me included.”
Ted Strom, 62, was a staff physician at the Memphis Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
He was also an associate professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, and taught hematopathology and transfusion medicine to medical students and residents, according to his profile on LinkedIn.
“His exceptional service to Veterans as a staff physician is a testament to the type person that he was,” the hospital said in a statement. “He will certainly be missed.”
Strom, who lived in Germantown, Tennessee, received his medical degree and doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Chicago, according to the profile.
His family requested privacy and said in a statement that “he passed in a place he cherished while doing something he loved.”
Sanjeeri Deopujari, a dentist, and Kaustubh Nirmal, a strategic business technologist, lived in Stamford, Connecticut.
Nirmal’s cousin, Rajul Sharma, told the Los Angeles Times that the married couple were soul mates.
“God took them away from us untimely and unfairly, but even he didn’t have the heart to separate them in death,” he told the newspaper.
Nirmal had a master’s degree in management information systems from New York University and worked for Ernst & Young, according to his LinkedIn profile.
The couple had a dog named Bebe, and loved her “to the moon and back,” said neighbor Marlene Springer.
“It is such a sad time for everyone,” she said.
CELEBRATING A TEEN’S BIRTHDAY
Apple engineer Steve Salika, 55, and his wife, Diana Adamic, 60, went on the trip with their daughter Tia Salika to celebrate the teen’s 17th birthday.
Apple colleague Dan Garcia, 46, joined them with his girlfriend Yulia Krashennaya, 40.
Krashennaya was a product manager at Spiralinks where she did contracting work for Cisco Global Event Marketing, Richard Stehn, a company spokesperson told The Mercury News.
The couple, who lived in Berkeley, were avid divers and underwater photographers who went on trips around the world, the paper reported.
An Apple senior vice president Deirdre O’Brien said Garcia “was as passionate about his job at Apple as he was about his love of diving. Both leave many friends behind and will be deeply missed.”
His aunt posted on her Facebook page that he had also worked for Amazon and called him a “gifted engineer” and a “talented artist in many venues.”
“Dan was an incredible, special young man, 46 years young,” his aunt Blanche Garcia wrote.
Salika met Adamic at Apple. Adamic later left the company, but Salika remained for 30 years, touching so many people with his “energy and enthusiasm,” O’Brien said in a statement.
For the birthday trip, Tia Salika brought along her 16-year-old friend Berenice Felipe from her school, Pacific Collegiate Charter School, a high-performing institution serving grades seven to 12 in Santa Cruz, according to a letter sent to the school community obtained by NBC News.
The girls volunteered together at the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter, as did Adamic, who was “was an ally to all living things — orphan kittens, wild birds, youth volunteers — and a champion for the natural world around us,” Jen Walker, a former humane educator at the animal shelter posted on the shelter’s Facebook page.
Walker called Tia “an amazing young woman, filled with shy grace and the purest enthusiasm.” She said she helped foster kittens, among other things, and her friend Berenice “was a model of gentle support for the animals and children she worked with at the shelter.”
Tom Peyton, vice president of Kids Sea Camp in South Carolina, said his all-inclusive scuba diving company taught Tia to dive at the age of six and they went on their trips every year since.
“This family was incredibly adventurous, very fearless,” he said. “They loved family life, the ocean and the environment.”
Vaidehi Williams lived in Northern California and was passionate about water conservation.
She worked for the Soquel Creek Water District and was raising her two children with her husband, Sarma Williams, according to a GoFundMe page set up to assist the family.
“Vaidehi has touched so many people from so many walks of life,” the site said. “She had a way of bringing people together and seized every opportunity to live life to its fullest.”
Williams gave presentations about water conservation in schools, drove the district’s educational trailer and wore a water droplet costume at the county fair and an Earth Day event, the district said in a statement.
She worked for the district for 18 years, most recently as communication specialist, and helped start its geographic information system platform, the statement said.
“She brought joy to work every day and was a dear friend to all of us,” the district said. “She will forever be our ‘Water Princess.’”
A FAMILY WHO SHARED A LOVE OF DIVING
The Quitasol sisters were celebrating their father’s birthday by going on another adventure with him and his wife, Fernisa Sison, family members said. The family had been scuba diving together for at least a decade.
Michael Quitasol met Sison, 57, at San Joaquin Delta College, where they both studied nursing. Fernisa also taught first-year nursing students at the college in 2005 and 2006 and later as an adjunct instructor.
The couple worked at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Stockton. Later, Quitasol’s daughter, Evan, landed a nursing job there.
Her sister Angela Quitasol was a science teacher at a middle school in Stockton. Another sister, Nicole, moved to the San Diego area and worked at a Coronado restaurant.
Dominic Selga said the Quitasol family and his ex-wife, Sison, had been on the boat “five or six” times. He called the Quitasols “great people” and said the two families spent Mother’s Day and Father’s Day holidays together.
The girls’ stepfather, Chris Rosas, described them to the Los Angeles Times as “the most kind, most loving people I’ve ever met — and I’m not just saying that because they’re family.”
A FREE SPIRIT
Allie Kurtz, 26, was the sole crewmember who died aboard the Conception.
She previously worked in the movie industry. But she left a job and life in Santa Monica earlier this year to move to Santa Barbara and follow her dream of working on a boat, family members said.
Kurtz worked as a cook on another boat for Truth Aquatics and was recently thrilled to be promoted as a deckhand on the Conception.
Kurtz, who grew up in Illinois, was free-spirited, well-traveled and studied theater and opera.
Her 71-year-old grandmother, Doris Lapporte, said she always loved the water and used to kid that she wanted to be a pirate someday. Her father, Robert Kurtz, and sister Olivia, 20, joked that she had fins and gills. They said they plan to scatter her ashes at sea.
“She left this world doing something she absolutely loved. This was her dream, and she was finally able to fulfill this dream,” her sister said.
A STATE ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENTIST AND HER PHOTOGRAPHER HUSBAND
Adrian Dahood-Fritz, 40, and her 40-year-old husband, professional photographer Andrew Fritz, had just moved to California from Texas for Dahood-Fritz’s new job as a senior environmental scientist for California’s Ocean Protection Council under the California Natural Resources Agency.
Dahood-Fritz led efforts to manage the state’s network of marine protected areas and cared deeply about the ocean, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement Thursday. She had done research in Antarctica.
“She embodied marine conservation and was a highly accomplished and respected scientific researcher,” Newsom said.
The couple previously lived in Taylor, Texas, where they were known for their photography skills and volunteer work with animals.
Friend Josh Baker said he grew up with Fritz, and the two started a photography business in 2015. Fritz did portraits, weddings and other events. He also shot nature photography, mostly to fulfill his own passion, he said on his photography website.
In May, Fritz wrote in his website’s blog that he was so enamored at seeing a Cheetah run at the San Diego Safari Park he had to put down his camera and watch with his own eyes.
Baker said Fritz was supposed to fly back to Austin in a few weeks to teach a photography class in which he was known for taking students to the Texas’ Hill Country to shoot the night sky.
“He would teach classes, and they would be sold out for months,” Baker told the Austin American-Statesman.
Baker said he and Fritz also formed a photography club called the North Austin Pfotographic Society.
Fritz had traveled the world scuba diving.
Wei Tan, a 26-year-old from Goleta, California, was among those identified Friday by authorities.
Tan, who was from Singapore, studied chemical engineering at University of Michigan and industrial engineering and operations research at University of California, Berkeley.
“It hurts, it will always hurt, but we will move on,” her older sister Cheerin Tan posted on Facebook.
Earlier this year, Tan started working as a data scientist for Evidation Health, according to her social media pages.
Christine Lemke, Evidation’s president, said the news was heartbreaking.
“Her smile lit up the world and she’ll be sorely missed,” she said in a statement.
Maribel Leonio, executive officer at Singapore’s consulate in San Francisco, said another Singaporean citizen, Sunil Singh Sandhu, was also on the list of passengers.
His father, Sojit Singh, told The New Paper in Singapore his mind went blank when he heard the news.
“I thought this was a hoax,” he said. “My whole life is gone.”
Singh said his son was a health buff who took up scuba diving about two months ago.
In a LinkedIn profile, Sandhu said he worked as a silicon photonics senior scientist at Pointcloud Inc in Northern California.
He obtained a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 2011.
He later worked as a post-doctoral fellow researching the interaction between matter and light, the profile said.
He also studied Japanese, Chinese and Russian and previously served a year in Singapore’s armed forces as an infantry officer, the profile said.
Carrie McLaughlin and Kristian Takvam had successful careers at the education platform Brilliant in San Francisco.
McLaughlin, 35, was a senior software engineer, and Takvam was Brilliant’s vice president of engineering.
The loss of the two friends was heartbreaking for their colleagues in Northern California.
“Carrie and Kristian were incredible friends and colleagues who brought immense passion, talent, leadership, and warmth, and they will be missed dearly,” Brilliant chief executive Sue Khim said in a statement.
McLaughlin, who lived in Oakland, grew up in Palo Alto and graduated from the University of California, San Diego in 2005, according to her Facebook page. She was also a watercolor artist.
‘THEY WENT TO HEAVEN DOING SOMETHING TOGETHER THAT THEY BOTH LOVED’
Neal Baltz and Patricia Beitzinger loved the outdoors and adventure, according to Baltz’s family.
The couple, who lived in in Ahwatukee Foothills in southern Phoenix, traveled the world together, taking scuba diving trips in Micronesia and the Caribbean, among other places.
“They went to heaven doing something together that they both loved,” Neal’s father, John Baltz, told ABC affiliate KNXV-TV in Phoenix.
Baltz worked as an engineer for a semiconductor company and studied electrical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
He also loved making wine and enrolled in an enology program at a northern Arizona community college to learn more, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Baltz was an upbeat, friendly student who went through life with joy, said Michael Pierce, the director of enology and viticulture at the Southwest Wine Center.
“He loved so many things,” Pierce told the paper. “He loved the ocean, he loved his dogs, he loved Patricia. We are a small community. It’s a huge loss for us.”
A MARINE BIOLOGIST ON A MISSION
Marine biologist Kristy Finstad joked that her blood was salty in a post on her scuba diving company’s website.
She first put on a dive tank at the age of nine and had done hundreds of dives in the rugged, wind-swept Channel Islands, off Santa Barbara’s coast, before leading the tour over Labor Day weekend.
The 41-year-old Finstad first swam in the national park as a toddler under her father’s arm, according to the company’s website.
She took over Worldwide Diving Adventures started by her mother in the 1970s and co-owned the company with her husband, also an avid diver.
Finstad studied damselfish and corals in the Tahitian Islands, dove for black pearls in the French Polynesian Tuamotus Islands and counted salmonids for the city of Santa Cruz, where she lived. She also did research for the Australian Institute of Marine Science and wrote a restoration guidebook for the California Coastal Commission.
“My mission is to inspire appreciation for our underwater world,” she wrote on her company’s website.
She and her husband had just returned from sailing across the South Pacific. It was part of their 10-year plan that started on the back of a napkin in 2006.
They left from the Channel Islands in 2015 on the journey and planned to return in 2018. Before they set off, Finstad wrote: “Our new boss is King Neptune: when it blows we hunker down; when there’s surf we paddle in; when there’s rain we wash up. In terms of time-lines, the best we can do is point in the right direction.”
Raymond “Scott” Chan, 59, and his 26-year-old daughter, Kendra Chan, shared a love of science and diving.
The two, who both lived in Los Altos, took at least two boat trips to the Channel Islands each year, according to their family.
Raymond Chan, who went by his first name Scott, gave up a 20-year career in Silicon Valley to teach.
Chan said on his LinkedIn page that his teaching was fed by his “passion and wealth of real-world experience from research laboratories, and the electronics, computer, and high-performance automotive industries.”
He was well liked at American High School in Fremont, where he taught Advanced Placement physics classes for the past three years, according to the school district.
“His students knew him to be an innovative and inspiring teacher who developed a passion for physics among his students,” the Fremont Unified School District said in a statement. “His loss is a tremendous tragedy for our school district.”
Kendra Chan was a wildlife biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura.
“I was so proud, so proud of her and all that she was doing,” her mother, Vicki Moore told FOX affiliate KTVU in San Francisco. “She was absolutely an amazing young woman.”
A University of California, Davis graduate, Chancellor Gary S. May said she was dedicated to creating a healthier planet.
“Kendra’s fascination with marine ecology will continue to inspire everyone she touched,” he said in a statement.
A VISUAL EFFECTS DESIGNER AND CLOSE FRIEND LIVING LIFE TO FULLEST
Visual effects designer Charles McIlvain, 44, and his close friend and neighbor Marybeth Guiney lived life to the fullest, according to his wife, Jasmine Lord, in a statement from McIlvain’s family.
McIlvain worked on “Spider-Man” and “Green Lantern” among other films.
“His laugh was the greatest and his smile could light up the dark,” the family said in a statement. “He embraced life with exceptional joy, openness and humor, and all who knew him felt that warmth.”
McIlvain worked as a visual effects designer for Walt Disney Imagineering and as a pipeline engineer and technical animation supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks. He also worked at Netflix .
“Chuck was a magnetic person who had an incredible ability to connect with people and help them,” Netflix said in a statement. “This is devastating news for those who were fortunate to know him, and he will be deeply missed by his friends and co-workers at Netflix.”
Culver City Councilman Alex Fisch said he was a close friend who loved to dive, snowboard and mountain bike.
“I can’t emphasize enough the unique combination of creativity, intelligence and wonderful presence that he had,” Fisch said.
Guiney, 51, was a sales director and ocean enthusiast who advocated for the protection of sharks. From Boston, she formerly worked as a sales executive for the New England Patriots, which said in a statement that the organization was “deeply saddened” over her death.
“She was the person you wanted to be around. She was fun — the best smile, the best laugh,” Carrie Benabou, a friend of Guiney’s, told ABC’s affiliate in Boston, WCVB.
A HAIRDRESSER AND NATURE PHOTOGRAPHER
Lisa Fiedler, a 52-year-old hairdresser and photographer, said on her photography website that the moment she picked up the camera, she realized “I enjoyed creating and sharing images that reflect the way I absorb the grandeur of nature.”
A native of Michigan, Fiedler lived in Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco, where she worked as a hair stylist at Dagaz Salon. Her photographs were stunning, colorful images of majestic Red Woods, hummingbirds in flight and water rushing over boulders in Northern California. She also photographed life and nature in Guatemala, China, Tibet and Holland.
Lisa’s mother, Nancy Fiedler, who lives in Corte Madera, said her daughter thought of herself as “part fish” because of her ocean addiction.
“Everybody loved her. She was a kind, gentle person. She was a naturalist, she loved nature,” her mother told San Francisco’s ABC affiliate, KGO television.
Alicia Love, a friend and co-worker, told the Marin Independent Journal that she was someone who was “independent, adventurous and didn’t let anything hold her back.”
Watson reported from San Diego, Taxin from Santa Ana, California.