As the clock keeps ticking away following a catastrophic dive boat fire in California earlier this week, friends and family members of those thought to have perished have been left in a particularly agonizing limbo. Thanks in no small part to the extreme conditions of the inferno, the final confirmation that their loved ones died remains up in the air.
But in an effort to remedy that situation, emergency workers have been deploying state-of-the-art, “rapid DNA” testing tech over the last 24 hours, trying to accelerate the ID process. Mourning parents and siblings have had to provide sample swabs.
“Rapid DNA testing refers to completely automated testing of DNA, testing samples in less than two hours using portable ‘all-in-one’ instruments,” Mehul Anjaria, a Los Angeles-based forensic DNA specialist, told Fox News. “Essentially, a sample such as a swab, is placed in the machine, and after two hours, a DNA profile is printed out.
"It does not require a trained DNA laboratory analysis or environment to conduct. Its portability is the key.”
In the predawn hours on Monda – it should have been the final day of a happy Labor Day weekend cruise in Southern California waters – the Conception erupted in flames just 20 yards from Santa Cruz Island's north shore. Five crew members above deck were able to leap from the flames. One crew member and all of the 34 passengers – who were believed to be sleeping below deck – were apparently unable to get to safety.
After more than a day of search-and-rescue efforts, crews on Tuesday made the grim transition to search and recovery, poring over the charred remnants of the 75-foot vessel. As it stood Wednesday afternoon, it appeared that nearly all victims’ remains had been located, with just one missing.
But making affirmative identifications -- and offering the victims' friends and kin some closure -- is no simple task. Thus, the fast, on-the-spot DNA process has been getting a workout.
“It’s incredible technology and is going to change the way law enforcement does business,” said Jim Davis, a former FBI agent and chief federal officer for ANDE, a firm that's been a pioneer in the rapid DNA testing industry. “It’s basically a lab on a block of plastic that uses the same basic chemistry and processing that is used in traditional labs.”
He noted that in his law enforcement career, which took him to Iraq and Afghanistan, crews routinely deployed the tech to ID bombmakers and other wanted targets quickly. The U.S. military has been using it primarily since 2014, while law enforcement agencies started turning to rapid DNA in early 2016.
Most recently, it has been adopted by the Department of Homeland Security to verify family links among migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
California’s Butte County Sheriff’s Office used ANDE last year to help positively identify victims of California’s wildfires so death certificates could be issued promptly.
“Burn victims can be very hard to identify. In these fires, we were able to go there and do testing on badly burned remains which were sometimes just given to us in shopping bags,” Davis explained.
Historically, he said, the DNA process has taken weeks or even months. This was due not only to the technology used, but also to lab backlogs.
The new approach cut through the red tape.
The Justice Department has been helping local officials with the DNA process. Officials declined to comment on precisely how long the confirmation process in the boat fire will take.
The Santa Barbara County coroner has been tasked with handling the autopsies, with assistance from Sacramento and Los Angeles.
Investigators have not yet officially released the names of the victims, pending the outcome of the confirmation process, but slowly, names and tributes have been trickling out via social media.
In the immediate hours following the tragedy, the City of Santa Barbara established a Family Assistance Center and Emergency Operation Center at Earl Warren Showgrounds, where families could go for the latest information, support and grief counseling. The facility has included professional resources provided by the American Red Cross, Hospice of Santa Barbara, police and fire departments, and the Institute of Collective Trauma and Growth.
A hotline has handled dozens of calls, officials stated.
Susana Solano Rosas checked in on Tuesday morning, as news broke that the search effort was being called off. She's lost much of her family: Her three daughters, Angela, Nicole and Evan Quitasol, were celebrating the birthday of their dad, Michael, aboard the Conception, along with their stepmom, Fernisa Sison.
Angela was a middle school science teacher, and Evan was an emergency room nurse, both in Stockton. Nicole worked at Nicky Rottens Bar & Burger Joint on San Diego’s Coronado Island.
As the outpouring of grief continued, scores of companies and individuals touched by tragedy have found ways to express their pain.
“We would like to extend our heartfelt thoughts and prayers to the family of our former skater, Angela Rosa,” said Port City Roller Girls, a Stockton-based roller derby team. “Our thoughts are with her biggest fan and proud Port City supporter, her mother Susana as well as her sister Christina who also skated with us... Godspeed.”
Lincoln Unified Teachers Association (LUTA), where Angela worked, said in a statement that it was “deeply saddened” and would be providing support services for fellow LUTA members.
Meanwhile, a GoFundMe page was created Tuesday by those who'd worked with Nicole in Coronado, with the goal of raising $55,000 for Susana to cover the funeral costs for all five family members. Over $10,000 had been pledged in under 24 hours, as of Wednesday afternoon.
“Our hearts are broken, and we can’t imagine the pain her family feels,” said a statement from the campaign, entitled “Love & Support for The Quitasol Family.” “Nicole will be remembered as an adventurous and loving soul.”
Also among the apparent victims: Charles McIlvain, an employee of Sony Pictures in Culver City.
“You were always a good person with an awesome heart. You can always tell how amazing a person is by how much their friends care about them. I pray for you and your family. In time, they will heal because of how your amazing spirit will live on,” one friend wrote. “You lived it to the fullest. For that I raise my glass to you. God bless you and your family. RIP Charles McIlvain.”
The boat’s cauterized skeleton now rests on the ocean floor, and an investigation was ongoing over the cause of the deadly fire. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was expected to release preliminary findings next week. A final report could take upward of two years.
Over the past two days, scores of flowers, flags and candles have piled up along the harbor, marking the spot where the Conception left. Friends, family, tourists and the close-knit dive community were stopping by to pay their respects, in torment and bafflement. Many could not understand how such a disaster could have befallen Truth Aquatics, a highly regarded boat operation company headquartered in Santa Barbara.
Sunset vigils have been slated to take place on Thursday at the Santa Monica Aquarium and the Deep Blue Scuba Center on Long Beach’s Belmont Pier, commemorating the lives of the victims.
“This has impacted the community in more words than I can say. We frequent the islands and were planning to be on a (dive) trip this weekend,” said Jenna Lane, a Santa Barbara-based therapist who visited the growing memorial this week with her fiancé, a master diver. “I’m horrified at what transpired and completely heartbroken. Our hearts are going out to all those who are suffering.”