Meet Kristy Finstad — Dive Leader Feared Dead In Tragic California Boat Fire

Photo: Facebook
Who Is Kristy Finstad? New Details On Dive Leader Feared Dead In California Boat Fire

At around 3:15am on Monday, September 2, the dive ship 'Conception' was anchored offshore near California's Channel Islands. For reasons still unknown, a fire broke out on the ship. Several crew members escaped and tried to get help but it was too late. After burning at sea for hours the ship sank, taking all passengers who remained aboard with it.

One of the passengers was 41-year-old biologist and dive expedition leader Kristy Finstad. An experienced diver who grew up swimming and diving in the waters where the 'Conception' sank, she was leading a trip for the diving company she ran with her family. She has not been found among the wreckage so far and is presumed to have perished.

Who is Kirsty Finstad? Read on for all the details. 

1. An experienced diver

Kristy, along with her father and husband, owned a diving company called Worldwide Diving Adventures. She and her family led divers on their dream excursions at locations all over the world. In her official bio on the company website, Kristy highlighted her diving experience as well as her career as a serious marine scientist, saying: "Twice funded by the National Science Foundation, Kristy studied damselfish and corals in the Tahitian Islands; she was also a full-scholar abroad in Costa Rica and Australia.  Kristy’s employment history includes research diving for the Australian Institute of Marine Science, authoring a restoration guidebook for the California Coastal Commission, diving for black pearls in the Tuamotus, and counting salmonids for the City of Santa Cruz."

2. The Conception excursion

The waters around the Channel Islands were familiar territory for Kristy so there was nothing unusual about her plans to leading a diving expedition there last week — her family company led five to six trips per year in that area. She took a group of divers aboard the 'Conception,' her sixth trip on the vessel. Others recalled that she, like other dive leaders, would bring scientific equipment like microscopes for their guests so that they could continue learning about oceans and marine life even when they weren't in the water. Her brother Brett Harmeling noted to the LA Times that “She has an extraordinary depth of knowledge. She has a passion for the earth, and a love for marine life.” Harmeling went on to talk about the appeal of diving in the area."It’s one of the best — it’s not only convenient but extraordinary diving,” Harmeling said. “You get coral, you get beautiful fish, you get kelp forests. You also get some larger marine life, things like sea otters, that are super fun to play with. It’s amazing.”

A photo of Conception.

3. Fire aboard the ship

In the early hours of September 2, something went very wrong aboard the 'Conception.' Crew members who were sleeping on an upper deck awoke to find the ship in flames. The fire had already spread to the point that they weren't able to go below and check on passengers so they secured a dinghy and fled the inferno, according to the LA Times

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4. Engulfed in flames

After the crew members escaped to a dinghy, they padded to the nearest vessel, a 60-foot fishing boat owned by Bob and Shirley Hansen. The couple was asleep when the crew members started frantically pounding on the hull of the ship, the San Francisco Gate reports. They awoke and helped the crew members onto the boat. Later they told reporters that they could see the Conception burning nearby. "When we looked out, the other boat was totally engulfed in flames, from stem to stern," Hansen said. "I could see the fire coming through holes on the side of the boat. There were these explosions every few beats. You can't prepare yourself for that. It was horrendous."

Kristy's husband was not aboard the ship. He was leading another trip elsewhere.

5. What caused the fire

At this time, authorities can't say what caused the ship to catch fire. The boat was inspected regularly and Coast Guard records show that any safety violations were quickly fixed by the owners. While some of the violations were related to fire safety, they were addressed at the time they were discovered. The San Francisco Gate reports that a 2016 inspection required the owners to replace the heat detector in the galley and one in 2014 cited a leaky fire hose.

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6. Presumed to be dead

Like the rest of the passengers on the ship, Kristy was asleep below deck when the fire started. After burning for four hours, the ship sank below 62 feet of water, hindering recovery efforts, She was unaccounted for on Monday morning and is still among the missing at this time. Her bother Brett Harmeling asked for prayers in a Facebook post shortly after news of the fire broke. On Tuesday, he spoke to the LA Times, saying "She’s extremely strong-willed and very adventurous. If there was a 1% chance of her making it, she would have made it.” Recovery crews have identified the remains of 20 people but 14 others are still missing. Finstad is among the missing.

The Coast Guard and the Santa Barbara City Sheriff's Department are working to piece together what happened and recover the bodies of those who died. 

Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. Her work has been seen at Ravishly, Babble, Scary Mommy, The Mid, Redbook online, and The Broad Side. She is the creator of the blog Stay at Home Pundit and she is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.