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.
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 dayplanner, holding a love note written by their father to Finstad.
Sawdon chokes up each time she reads the note. She said the dayplanner 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.