FINSTAD, Kristina Oline (c. 1978-2019), marine biologist killed aboard the dive boat Conception fire on September 2, 2019.
Finstad was a NAUI instructor with a degree in Aquatic Biology and a spirit of adventure. She had a knack for planning and thousands of dives under her belt. “There’s nothing better than seeing divers’ dream vacations come true.” Kristy’s first dives were under her father, Bill’s arm, a toddler breathing from his octopus in the Channel Islands; her first tank worn in Cozumel when she was nine. 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. “My mission is to inspire appreciation for our underwater world. I feel incredibly fortunate to be in the service of helping people invest in experiences of a lifetime.” Lover of travel and culture, Kristy sailed across the South Pacific with her husband Dan, finding new and amazing places to bring Worldwide Diving Adventurers… with some surf and yoga on the side.
Described as a free spirit who's in touch with nature, Finstad was one of the first reported to be onboard as her company, Worldwide Diving Adventures chartered Conception for Labor Day weekend. Finstad was a Marine Biologist and skilled diver who received her Bachelor's Degree from UC Santa Barbara. She was 41 years old from Santa Cruz, CA.
Kristy Finstad is survived by husband, Dan Chua; parents, Rita (Al) Harmeling, and Bill (Megan) Finstad; siblings, Jessica (Jeffrey) Finstad, Heather (Chris) Sawdon, Sarah Finstad, Brett (Lucia) Harmeling, and Andrew Harmeling; nieces and nephews, Sierra, Joseph, and Haley; aunts, Sally Harmeling, and Kathy (Roger) Voskuil.
Her company sponsored an annual Labor Day weekend dive trip to the Channel Islands for many years. The 2019 website advertised this Labor Day trip:
Labor Day Weekend; Northern Channel Islands Date(s) 08/31/2019 - 09/02/2019
$665* The Liveaboard Truth Aquatics live-aboards are designed by divers for divers. Their commitment to service shows through the smiles of crewmembers that love their jobs and undergo special safety training. The Galley folks cook up some gourmet cuisine! We’re on the Conception for this holiday weekend.
The Destination. On the Labor Day trip, divers have the unique opportunity to explore the pinnacles of San Miguel Island. The beginning of September is the best time to be at San Mig, which see strong winds and swell during much of the year. This rarely visited island is loaded with color: anemones, crabs, nudibranchs covering every inch of wall with a rainbow. Great for macro-photography. Nutrient rich waters bathing this island bring BIG fish: halibut, bugs, rockfish, wolfeels, lingcod. The precipitous geology at Boomerang, Skyscrapers, Richardson’s and Wilson’s Rock will blow you away. The island also hosts pristine shallow reefs hosting an incredibly diverse collection of sea life. Night dives are delightful; octopi roam the reefs and bioluminescent zooplankton flash colors to silhouette the diver. Other destinations may include Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara Islands.
We will meet at the Santa Barbara Harbor on Friday night, boarding anytime after 8pm. Fall asleep with the Conception departing at 4am, Saturday morning. The boat will return on Monday (Labor Day) about 5pm. The Sea Landing Dive Center is located within steps from the Truth Aquatic vessels for convenient equipment rental (tanks and weights are not provided on-board). See more details “Preparing for your Channel Islands Trip” on our Currents page. Marine Biologist Kristy brings her microscope to show divers silicious spicules and pumping pedicellariae– the colors on marine invertebrates are amazing up close!
Worldwide Diving Adventures, PO Box 1019, Twin Bridges, CA 95735
In the News~
September 2, 2019 [NY Daily News]: “The doomed Santa Cruz diving boat that caught fire and sank early Monday off the coast of Southern California had been chartered by a local adventure company owned by a marine biologist — who is among the missing and feared dead. “Please pray for my sister Kristy!” wrote Brett Harmeling, brother of Kristy Finstad, on Facebook. “She was leading a dive trip on this boat,” he said. Finstad co-owns the Worldwide Diving Adventures company, which chartered the 75-foot vessel — dubbed the Conception — through Truth Aquatics, a Santa Barbara-based boating operation. Worldwide Diving was reportedly founded in 1972 by Finstad’s father, Bill Finstad, and later passed down to her upon his retirement. She and her husband, Dan Chua, run the business and lead excursions as licensed scuba instructors. Chua is leading a dive trip off Costa Rica, according to Finstad’s brother, who was supposed to be with her on the Conception during the Labor Day Weekend getaway. “I was going to be on this trip,” he told a Facebook user. Attempts to reach Harmeling were unsuccessful on Monday night. Friends and families were sending their condolences to him after authorities announced that almost everyone on board the Conception when the fire broke out was missing and feared dead. “We are praying and loving your family through all of this,” said one person. To which Harmeling replied, “Thank you.” Finstad is described on the Worldwide Diving site as “a NAUI instructor with a degree in Aquatic Biology and a spirit of adventure.” “There’s nothing better than seeing divers’ dream vacations come true,” she’s quoted as saying. “My mission is to inspire appreciation for our underwater world. I feel incredibly fortunate to be in the service of helping people invest in experiences of a lifetime.” Authorities had recovered at least four bodies as of 4:30 p.m. local time Monday — and located another four on the bottom of the ocean floor, according to officials. Thirty-nine people were said to have been aboard the ship. Five members of the crew were rescued after the incident was first reported. The remaining 26 people who have been unaccounted for are feared dead, with local police suspecting that their remains are still trapped inside the Conception. “We will search all the way through the night, into the morning,” said Capt. Monica Rochester, a Coast Guard spokeswoman, at a press conference. “But we should all be prepared to move into the worst outcome.”
September 2, 2019 [NY Daily News]: “Marine biologist Kristy Finstad helped lead the excursion for Worldwide Diving, her family’s company, and was still missing as of Monday afternoon, her brother told the Daily News. “We’re still waiting to hear, unfortunately. It’s not looking good,” brother Brett Harmeling, 31, said in a phone interview. “She’d be the person who could make it if it’s possible. She could hold her breath for an insane amount of time. It just doesn’t sound like there was a chance for anyone to get out,” he said. “She’s a very strong, strong woman,” he said. “But they’ve been searching for a long time already.” Finstad, 41, helped organize the trip with husband Dan Chua through the family’s company, Worldwide Diving Adventures. The company took the group out on the 75-foot Conception owned and operated by Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara. Chua did not join his wife on the trip and was leading a separate group in Costa Rica, Harmeling said. “She’s done this trip hundreds of times,” he said of the Labor Day weekend SCUBA trip. The three-day live aboard diving tour was advertised as a $665-per-person chance to see octopi, colorful anemones, crabs, halibut, wolf eels and bioluminescent zooplankton in the waters around the Channel Islands. It’s believed the 33 people who were not crew members were sleeping below the deck when the fire erupted. Officials did not immediately comment on a possible cause. Harmeling said another sister who works for the diving company was in touch with the Coast Guard and had not received any word that Finstad was among the five who survived. He said his sister likely wouldn’t be considered a crew member because she didn’t work for the boat’s operator. Harmeling described his sister as a “free spirit” with a Masters in marine biology. “She’s really in touch with nature. She knows everything about the ocean. She’s been diving almost as long as she’s been walking,” he told The News. “She’s very intuitive, very loving and very adventurous,” he said. In a Facebook post, Harmeling asked others to pray for his family. “Please pray for my sister Kristy!! She was leading a dive trip on this boat,” he wrote. The Conception burst into flames around 3 a.m. Monday, with five crew members jumping into the water before they were saved by a passing pleasure vessel. Four other people were later confirmed dead by Coast Guard officials, and another 29 were the subject of an intense search operation that stretched for hours. Five Conception crew members awake when the fire broke out survived by jumping into the water, officials said. They were picked up by a pleasure boat called The Grape Escape said officials.”
September 4, 2019 [Sheboygan Press]: “Oostburg High grad lost in California boat fire is remembered for zest for learning, selflessness. SHEBOYGAN - A day after the boat she was on caught fire and trapped 34 people off the Southern California coast, Kristy Finstad was remembered for her passion for learning and selflessness. “If she had a chance, she would have helped anyone but herself get off that boat,” said Al Harmeling, Finstad’s stepfather. Finstad, an Oostburg High graduate, is among 34 who were trapped on the boat’s lower deck as flames blocked both exits. All are presumed dead. Her mother, Rita Harmeling, was headed to Santa Barbara on Wednesday to provide a DNA sample to aid with identification. Rita Harmeling said before leaving Wednesday that there was “a big hole in my heart that won’t be fixed for a long time.” Al, who lives in Oostburg, spoke proudly of when Finstad won a prestigious Kohler Foundation scholarship as a senior in high school. She studied marine biology at the University of California-Santa Barbara and planned on returning to school to get a master’s degree. Finstad and her husband recently bought a house and were looking forward to settling down. Finstad, 41, was leading a three-day scuba diving trip and had chartered the boat for Worldwide Diving Adventures, which she co-owned with her husband and father, Bill. She first swam in the area with her father as a toddler and had done hundreds of dives there. Living an adventurous life, Finstad dove for black pearls in the French Polynesia Tuamotus Islands, studied damselfish and corals in the Tahitian Islands and conducted research for the Australian Institute of Marine Science. She counted salmonids for the city of Santa Cruz and wrote a restoration guidebook for the California Coastal Commission. Most recently, she and her husband sailed across the South Pacific. “I remember Kristy as this really exceptional young lady with huge horizons,” said Scott Greupink, principal of Oostburg High School, where she graduated in 1996. Information about services wasn't immediately available Wednesday. Brett Harmeling, Finstad’s brother, said he is thankful for an outpouring of encouragement and support, and he extends his sympathy and condolences to the other families involved. The boat was anchored in the Channel Islands west of Los Angeles when the fire broke out shortly after 3 a.m. Monday. As of midday Wednesday, the bodies of 33 of the 34 presumed dead had been recovered, and the National Transportation Safety Board was investigating the cause of the fire.”
September 17, 2019 [edhat.com]: “Kristina Oline Finstad, died on Monday, September 2, 2019, while on the ocean doing what she loved, at the age of 41. Kristy was born Feb. 6, 1978 in Santa Cruz, CA to Bill Finstad and Rita Harmeling. She graduated from Oostburg High School, WI and received the Kohler Foundation scholarship. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara, CA, in Aquatic Biology, where she met her amazing husband Dan Chua. She inspired passion for the ocean through her business, Worldwide Diving Adventures. Kristy was a strong, smart, and talented woman who shared her beautiful spirit with others as a NAUI Dive Instructor and Yoga Instructor. Kristy authored a book Digging In: A Guide to Community-based Habitat Restoration, which the California Coastal Commission still distributes. She had recently returned from a four-year journey sailing across the Pacific Ocean and was putting down roots in Lake Tahoe, CA. Kristy loved hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the California Redwood Forests, smelling the wildflowers and long walks along the beaches of Lake Michigan and Baja California. She also celebrated life with surfing, skiing, writing, playing guitar, art projects, making bread and spending time with family. Even in this fast-paced digital age, Kristy was the type of person who would send a handwritten birthday card through the mail or a post card from some far-flung destination and get it to the loved one on time. She was a thoughtful and compassionate person who could light up a room with her smile and energy. She is survived by her husband, Dan Chua; parents, Rita (Al) Harmeling, and Bill (Megan) Finstad; siblings, Jessica (Jeffrey) Finstad-Galloway, Heather (Chris) Sawdon, Sarah Finstad, Brett (Lucia) Harmeling, and Andrew Harmeling; nieces and nephews, Sierra, Joseph, and Haley; aunts, Sally Harmeling, Kathy (Roger) Voskuil, and Aunt Liane Finstad, and many cousins.
Visitation will be held on Saturday, Sep. 21, 2019, from 12 pm until 3 pm, at Wenig Funeral Home in Oostburg, WI. A memorial reception will be held from 5 pm until 8 pm at Al and Rita’s, N1421 Cottage Drive in Oostburg. Guests are welcome to bring a beverage, snack to share, and a chair if they wish. Beach attire suggested in memory of Kristy. Private inurnment will take place at Presbyterian Cemetery. Memorial contributions can be made in her name. For online condolences and additional information please visit www.wenigfh.com The Wenig Funeral Home of Oostburg (920-564-2771) is serving the Finstad/Harmeling family with arrangements. To send flowers to the family of Kristy Finstad, please visit Tribute Store.
December 25, 2019 [The Independent]: “Bring Kristy Back to Baja. In Memoriam By Dan Chua. The author’s wife, Kristy Finstad, was one of the 34 people who died on September 2, 2019, in the Conception boat fire off of Santa Cruz Island. A UCSB grad, Chua posted this on Facebook on December 19.
“Baja had always been a sacred place for me, even before I had met Kristy. I “discovered” Baja during my UCSB college days on a surf trip with a bunch of buddies. We were so naïve and clueless. But we had a blast, and that trip sparked a lifelong love of Mexico, and especially Baja. I’ve had some of my most memorable, wild, life-changing, and unforgettable experiences in Baja: swimming with orcas (intense), getting hassled (appropriately) by Federales, sailing through remote islands in the Sea of Cortez (divine), driving (stupidly) straight into the teeth of a hurricane, surfing big waves, spearing huge yellowtail, and getting engaged to Kristy while lounging in a tide pool at our favorite spot. I’m not sure what I wanted in Baja; I just needed to get away. It was partly to retrace some places that we loved and I hadn’t been to in a long time. It was to bring some of Kristy back. It was to get back to the ocean, feel its healing salt solution, and live again by its moods, the tides, and weather. It was to disengage from reality, to check out for a while, run away, ease my pain and stress. And it was to surf. Surfing is a selfish indulgence. Chasing waves doesn’t help society; no one but the individual benefits from riding a wave. Most of the time, especially in Santa Cruz, where we lived for many years, you have to, selfishly, outfox the next person to get a wave. But there’s something about catching a wave that radiates energy through your body. And Kristy always liked me better when I’d been surfing. Something about my attitude changed. I was more positive, healthier, and happier. And that usually translated into being a better person. Maybe it does help society? My first full day in Baja, the waves were small but fun. I paddled out at sunset and got some fun knee-high longboard peelers. As the sun was setting, the moon was rising, and it seemed like the perfect time. I zipped back to the truck and grabbed the vessel with Kristy’s ashes. There was one other guy out; he must have thought I was odd as I paddled way outside. I released her ashes into the Pacific, the ocean we had spent so much time on together, at one of our favorite spots, as the moon rose and the sun fell. I cried my eyes out, but it felt good to bring part of her here. Never saw that other surfer again. Along the way, I got to visit a few special friends down in Baja. People whose connections to Kristy ran deep. We had thoughtful, intense talks, spent enjoyable time together, and drank tequila with tears in our eyes. Initially, I was scared, the bringer of a bad reality. It’s an odd situation to be in: I want to visit friends, but it used to be Kristy and I both, and then I show up alone. It makes it “real” for people who haven’t been in the near vicinity of this tragedy. But ultimately, my fears unfounded, each friend helped heal my wounds just a bit. I’m usually a private person, one who doesn’t bare their soul on social media. But I’ve been amazed by the strength of Christina Quitasol, the sister and daughter of four victims of the fire. She’s been a rock for the victim’s families, incredibly helpful with information and support for all of us. And an inspiration and good listener for me. So here I am, a recovering wreck, on a hard road, taking one step at time, baring my soul, and thankful for Baja, friends, family, and the ocean. Catch a wave.”
May 1, 2020 [SB Independent]: “After the Conception boat fire killed my sister, Kristy Finstad, and 32 divers and one crew woman, I was haunted, wondering if she died trapped, trying to escape. For months I awakened at night, choking for air in my nightmares. I needed to solve the puzzle of what really happened. What caused the fire? Why were they unable to escape from the lower bunkroom? How could this be prevented? I recently discovered the missing pieces.
It’s been eight months since the fire aboard the Conception. It occurred over Labor Day weekend 2019, at Santa Cruz Island. Kristy and her husband, Dan Chua, owned WDA (Worldwide Diving Adventures), the ill-fated charter master. WDA is a family business started by our father, Bill Finstad, half a century ago. The divers had signed up for what was expected to be an exciting three-day dive trip to Channel Islands National Park aboard Truth Aquatics’ well-respected dive boat.
After Kristy’s death, when her Toyota was retrieved from Santa Barbara Harbor’s parking lot, the CD player automatically engaged with the last song she played. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” filled the truck’s cab. It was prophetically bone-chilling. My tears streamed from the depths of my grief. My sister was gone.
I blame lithium-ion batteries. The crewman who discovered the fire heard the odd “caaw” sounds made by burning batteries. The 17 night divers had wet dive lights to charge, just five hours before the fire. Some had brought their own power strips because there were so many batteries to charge.
Given the needs of the 39 people on board, a spaghetti of power strips with charging cell phones, tablets, cameras with spare batteries, laptops, and dive lights would have been on the back two tables. Last year a crew member found a smoldering underwater light on the Vision and threw it overboard before it ignited.
Boat fires often start in engine compartments or are traced to electrical sources, but two crewmen found no fire in the engine room, and they successfully released the dinghy using electricity.
I researched how one faulty battery could start a killer fire chain reaction. A non-certified battery, like a cheap spare, can overheat from moisture exposure or low-quality insulation layers between the cells, causing a runaway thermal reaction (932 degrees F in seconds). Once the highly reactive lithium ignites, it cannot be put out with fire extinguishers, which can disperse the lithium, spreading the fire. Using water to put out a lithium fire is debated, since it re-ignites, but this method is approved for airlines.
The Federal Aviation Administration has documented that lithium-ion batteries have brought down aircraft: UPS Flight 6 and Asiana Flight 991. Why not a boat? Between 1991 and 2019, the FAA counted 241 incidents involving overheated lithium-ion batteries in airports or onboard aircraft. YouTube is replete with videos of explosions. At first, I didn’t believe a battery could cause such a rapid killer fire, until I found evidence.
The fire ignited, expanded, and ended 34 lives in six to ten minutes in a flash-over of flames, according to fire inspectors. A crewman had checked the galley at 2:35 a.m. The mayday call was received at 3:15 a.m. Just minutes before that, the same crewman heard something like a falling chair. He went to the back of the upper deck and discovered the already intense conflagration engulfing the aft entrance to the salon. He heard odd “caaw” sounds. He ran back into the wheelhouse shouting “Fire!” The captain’s mayday call ended with a haunting gasping: “I can’t breathe.”
Kristy slept in the first bunk located under the stairs. The stairs were not blocked by fire initially, and Kristy is the type of courageous person who would have wrapped up in blankets to run through flames and retreat into the ocean. The crew saw thick black smoke but no fire at the front of the galley where the stairs come up. When they attempted a rescue through the forward galley window, they said it was warm but not hot to the touch.
Kristy knew exactly where the fire escape hatch was located on the aft end of the bunk room. I’ve crawled through it with her before. Did she suffer trying to escape?
Ghost shadow images on the bunk mattresses of the Conception’s burned hull tell the story how they died in their sleep, as the deadly gasses blanketed them. They never left their bunks in attempted escape.
Kristy’s coroner report states the cause of her death was smoke inhalation, in minutes. There were two smoke/carbon monoxide (CO) alarms in the bunk room, tested with fresh batteries just two months earlier. Why didn’t they wake the passengers?
I believe they had already passed out from carbon monoxide poisoning. Unlike smoke, which rises, CO quickly diffuses into surrounding air. CO would have been sucked down the stairs to the bunk room, where the air-conditioning intake vents draw air down from the galley. The poisonous CO would have been blown directly onto each sleeping face. Carbon monoxide sneaks in undetected as a clear, odorless, and tasteless gas, causing sleeping victims to be rendered unconscious. They die before experiencing symptoms or discomfort. My nightmares ended with my sister falling into a deeper sleep as the poisons ushered her to her death.
Solving the Puzzle
When the FBI investigation meeting for family of the victims was cancelled due to COVID, I ordered the forensic toxicology report. It showed Kristy’s CO level to be greater than 75 percent saturation. Her cyanide was up to two micrograms per milliliter. These levels are exceptionally high, causing death in a couple minutes. But four to 15 minutes pass with carbon monoxide levels above 400 parts per million before a CO detector reaches the threshold to go off. Furthermore, the Coast Guard does not even require CO detectors.
My stomach churned reading the coroner’s report describing my sister’s scorched body. It proves she was sleeping on her right side when death occurred. Her right arm still held parts of her nightshirt, while her left side was charred beyond recognition. Death had already occurred by the time fire ravaged her lifeless body. Except for her right side, most of her body was covered in raw 4th-degree burns. She never even rolled over. May this bring comfort for everyone to know they passed away while resting in peace.
In my opinion, a plan outlined by Glen Fritzler, Truth Aquatics’ owner, to install fireproof charging cabinets is the best solution to a disaster such as this. They would automatically close and lock when sensing heat, release an internal fire extinguisher, set off a centralized alarm system, and vent the fumes safely outside. The Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act, a bill for new safety measures in the aftermath of the Conception tragedy, will be voted on in May when the COVID delay is lifted. I hope the bill will be modified to reflect this evidence before this tragedy is repeated. It won’t bring my sister and the 33 others back, but it just might keep others alive.” by Heather Sawdon, Kristy's sister
May 7, 2020 [spectrumnews]: “LOS ANGELES – More than eight months have passed since the tragic boat fire that claimed 34 lives near the coast of Santa Barbara that captured national headlines: the Conception. Time heals much more slowly than Heather Sawdon ever expected. Sawdon’s sister, Kristy Finstad, was just 41 years old and the host of the diving expedition on the 75-foot boat that Labor Day weekend. “Grieving is a longer process than you would imagine, and each of my family members, we’ve been there for each other to help each other get through it, but we all go through it differently,” Sawdon said. Sawdon, who lives in Michigan, has been turning to the healing power of writing to sort through the heartbreaking loss of her younger sister.
What You Need To Know:
- Kristy Finstad was among the 34 who died aboard the Conception
- Grieving process has been long and difficult
- She's writing two books about the boat and those who were aboard.
- She hopes the tragedy will lead to improved safety aboard dive boats.
Finstad was a marine biologist, a loving wife to her college sweetheart, Dan, and a life-long adventurer. Sawdon also couldn’t imagine a better aunt to her two children, who Finstad took on a special backpacking trip two weeks before the Conception fire. “She forever will be an inspiration to me. Not a day goes by that we don’t think good things about her,” Sawdon said. “She always lived her life to the fullest with no regrets. People say she lived how others dream.” Sawdon still remembers the sinking feeling of seeing the harrowing images of the Conception engulfed in flames on the news. The fire broke out around 3 a.m. as the dive boat floated near a quiet cove off Santa Cruz Island. Photographs showed the vessel devoured by fire, a burned-out hull illuminated by daybreak before the remains were pulled underwater. Sawdon knew her sister was on that boat. “Honestly, I didn’t have hope that she was with us still,” she said. “When I got the news, nobody expected it. Just such a shock. How many times we had been on that boat and had a great time.”
Sawdon says she and her sister learned to dive off that very boat. “Kristy and I had our first scuba dive on the Conception boat the first year it was put in the water.” Sawdon said. “We didn’t have our own dive gear on us, my dad is NAUI instructor so he just took us one at a time tucking us under his arm, and breathing off his octopus on the surface. Just introducing us to diving.” That early love of diving and nature grew into a lifelong career for Finstad. She took over the family company, Finstad’s Worldwide Diving Adventures, and had been running it for 15 years with her husband, Dan. The pair had a dream to sail around the world. “They bought a beautiful catamaran, sailed all the way across the Pacific to Australia, and along the way people could charter dive trips,” Sawdon said. “Four years she spent on this sailing adventure and she had just returned from that.”
Sawdon last saw her sister two weeks before the Conception. She took Sawdon’s two kids on a special backpacking trip in Lake Tahoe (Sawdon describes her as the “coolest aunt ever”), and was then supposed to head to Costa Rica with her husband. But instead, that Labor Day Weekend, Finstad took the Conception charter over from their other sister, who had just had a baby. Sawdon recalls flying to Santa Barbara with her family a few days after the fire. Officials had called off the search for survivors and were in the process of recovering bodies from the wreckage. Her sister was gone. “We just bawled our eyes out together. We wanted to be on that boat to hold each other with a sobbing grief and say goodbye,” Sawdon said.
When Finstad’s car was recovered from the harbor days later by one of her family members, they turned it on to hear the last song she had listened to before boarding the Conception: "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door" by Bob Dylan was mid-track. “It was prophetically bone chilling,” Sawdon said. For the months that followed, the mystery of the Conception’s final voyage plagued Sawdon. How did that fire start? What really happened that night? And for Sawdon the most important question of all: what were her sister’s final moments like? “I really wanted to know, did she suffer? Was she trapped?” Sawdon said. “I had been struggling, and I know others had, with the nightmare. I’d wake up and look at the clock. Darnit three in the morning again. And it’s like, that choking feeling.”
In March a piece of the puzzle unexpectedly arrived. Sawdon says the NTSB and FBI had coordinated a gathering for all the Conception victims’ families. But it was canceled last minute due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was during that time though, that Sawdon was finally able to get her sister’s coroner’s report from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department. She said the report revealed Finstad died from smoke inhalation.
“It was carbon monoxide,” Sawdon said, adding the report indicated over 75 percent saturation in her blood. A fire inspector told her Finstad would have become unconscious in just a few breaths and died within minutes. She was reportedly laying on her side, just how she would be when sleeping.
“Her death would have been peaceful,” Sawdon said. Sawdon describes the wave of relief and closure that swept over her in those moments. “You know how a deep cleansing breath feels? And your tears that you cry are ones that are releasing not fear anymore. It was like this deep cleansing breath. It put a piece of her to rest in my heart,” Sawdon said. Investigators were also able to recover one of Finstad’s personal belongings from the underwater wreckage and mailed it to Sawdon’s family. A day planner, holding a love note written by their father to Finstad.
Sawdon chokes up each time she reads the note. She said the day planner still smells like her sister. “I imagine that the night before she died, she jots down little things you know. And I just like to imagine that the last thing she read there was this love note from my dad,” Sawdon said fighting back tears.
It was actually Finstad’s love of writing that ultimately inspired Sawdon to begin drafting a book about the Conception’s final voyage. She has been gathering memories and stories of not just her sister, but the other 33 lives lost. Many of whom were like family to the Finstads. “There’s an amazing story there of amazing people,” Sawdon said. “One of the most important things is to show hope and comfort through it and a sense of peace.” Sawdon said her work will likely result in two books: one of Finstad’s writings dedicated to her family. The other about the Conception. In addition to telling the story of that fateful weekend, Sawdon plans to write about the federal investigation into the fire. A cause has yet to be determined. But Sawdon feels strongly it will have something to do with lithium-ion batteries. “To me, yes, it’s very likely that it’s a battery fire considering that a year before on the Vision boat, a dive light had been, they caught it at the smoldering stage before it ignited. And a crew member threw it in the ocean so it didn’t make the big news. It wasn’t the big tragedy,” Sawdon said.
Her biggest hope is the Conception leads to a new chapter in boating safety regulations. Her family is in support of the Small Vessel Passenger Safety Act that was proposed by California lawmakers in the wake of the disaster. It would, among other things, set safety standards for handling devices powered by lithium ion batteries. “I do hope that this story will prevent it from happening again,” said Sawdon. “And I hope another take away from my book is that people will come up with great solutions. I don’t want this to happen to another one.” And if something good can surface from such an unspeakable tragedy, Sawdon says it will add even more meaning to her sister’s legacy. Honoring a life lost far too soon, and a life lived the way others dream.
Sawdon has written an op-ed for the Santa Barbara Indepdendent about her quest to solve the puzzle of the Conception.“