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Santa Barbara divers shaken by Conception boat fire tragedy

Santa Barbara diving community hit hard by Conception boat fire tragedy

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Don Barthelmess has been part of the Santa Barbara diving community for more than 30 years.

It's a close-knit community, he says. And right now, it's hurting.

"Our hearts bleed for our friends," Barthelmess said. "They need to know that we're here for them. We support them."

Don, now the president of the board at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, knew the Conception well. 

As a marine tech professor at Santa Barbara City College for three decades, he often took diving students on board to train in first aid, CPR, oxygen administration and Nitrox diving. He went on the boat several times and calls it an important part of his life and career in Santa Barbara.

"I've taken my son on the boat," he said. "One of my graduates got married on the boat. It's part of the fabric of this diving community."

One of don's graduates was a crew member that survived Monday morning's deadly fire. The two exchanged messages Tuesday.

Part of the pain Don is dealing with comes from reports and speculation that the Conception's crew could have done more to save the 34 people lost in the tragedy.

"It's an insurmountable tragedy at sea," Barthelmess said. "Insurmountable. There's nothing else that could have been done based on what I've been seeing and hearing and reading. But yet there are those that are out there that want to pass judgement. And that's not right."

Barthelmess says judging by his experience with the Conception and its crew, no one could have seen this coming. He also says he doesn't believe there needs to be any regulatory change to how diving boats are constructed.

"This operation's been running for forty-plus years without an incident like this ever occurring," he said. "And that crew trains regularly, because I've trained with them… I know the level of expertise and preparation that the boats have, the crew has and everybody involved in that operation has. Do I think anything needs to change? No. Those boats are Cadillacs."

Barthelmess pointed to a phrase he goes back to, expressing how divers and mariners know and accept the risks that come with going out into the water.

"A ship in the harbor is safe, but that's not where ships are meant to be," he said. "In a marine environment, you are always going to have risks."

Whether Monday's fire was avoidable or not, local divers are still shocked and shaken this week. They at least have each other to rely on.

"We're a resilient community," Barthelmess said. "And we take care of our own… it will just bring us closer together, I hope."

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