September 3, 2019 / 10:27 PM / 15 days ago

'We all have a personal connection' - dockside memorial grows for California boat fire victims

SANTA BARBARA, Calif., Sept 3 (Reuters) - Members of the close-knit Santa Barbara boating community gathered on Tuesday to construct a makeshift memorial to the 34 people believed to have perished when their dive boat caught fire and sank off the California coast.

As of Tuesday, 20 badly burned bodies had been recovered from wreckage of the Conception, which caught fire near Santa Cruz Island early on Monday, and officials say they expect 14 other people died in the fast-moving blaze.

“Almost everyone, because we are right on the water here, has been out on (the Conception). We all have a personal connection with it,” said Judy Weisman, 72, as she visited the growing memorial of flowers, candles and pictures at the boat’s dock.

“It’s just such a horrific notion to think what the people down in the below decks, the people sleeping down there must have gone through,” Weisman said. “How terrifying.”

Only five people are known to have survived the fast-moving flames, the boat’s captain and four crew members who were above deck and escaped on an inflatable boat after jumping off the Conception. The single crew member who did not survive may have been sleeping below deck with the passengers at the time.

Mourners who made their way to the dock wove flowers into a wooden fence and left behind dive flippers and sea shells in remembrance. One of the shells was inscribed with the name “Kristy.”

A framed photograph of a smiling young couple had a note tucked inside that read: “I love you Allie - and you know I always will! I miss you forever. Love, Rob.”

One young woman visiting the memorial in tears said only that she had lost a close friend in the accident.

“It’s still a small town. It’s still a small town atmosphere and everybody is connected here,” said Michael Gallagher, a 53-year-old Santa Barbara County firefighter

“Quite honestly, this area has gone through a lot between the Thomas Fire and then right after that the debris flow from Montecito and Carpenteria where people were killed, and now this,” Gallagher said, referring to recent natural disasters to befall the community.

The Thomas Fire, which broke out in December 2017, destroyed more than 1,000 homes and other structures in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. The towns of Montecito and Carpenteria were struck by mudslides in January 2018 from hillsides left barren by the fire. (Reporting by Omar Younis in Santa Barbara; Writing by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; editing by Bill Tarrant and Grant McCool)

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