Nearly a thousand people joined a candlelight vigil and procession around Santa Monica Pier in remembrance of the 34 divers who died on Labor Day in the Conception fire, the worst maritime tragedy in modern California history.
Photos by Jason Ryan (@JasonRyanPhoto)

By Christina Campodonico

Swathed in colorful flashing lights, Santa Monica Pier after dark is a brilliant beacon of whimsy against the dark expanse of the Pacific. Last Thursday, flameless electric votive candles flickered against the swirl of the pier’s luminous display as nearly a thousand people formed a procession around its edges, mourning the 34 people who died on Labor Day in the horrific fire aboard the recreational dive boat Conception.

Two of those who died in the catastrophe off the coast of Santa Cruz Island were Santa Monica residents, neighbors and dive buddies. Charles “Chuck” McIlvain, 44, was a visual effects designer who’d worked with Netflix and Disney. Marybeth Guiney, 51, worked as a sales director for a local nutraceutical company and had a passion for the ocean.

“They were both just bright people,” said 38-year-old Katheryn Fiedler of Long Beach, who recounted diving with McIlvain and Guiney over Memorial Day weekend from Conception’s sister boat Truth. “Chuck was warm and funny, and Marybeth … she was just a bright spot. It’s a terrible tragedy that they’re no longer with us.”

Lisa Doell of Marina del Rey said Guiney was a good friend who lived life to the fullest.

“She said ‘Yes’ to life — very passionate, an absolute environmentalist, eco-warrior, conservationist and was doing what she loved the day that this unfortunately happened. So if anything, live life passionately. She definitely did,” Doell said.

The cause of the fire remained under investigation at press time, with the Los Angeles Times reporting that Conception’s operators are now the subject of a federal probe into possible violations of maritime safety regulations. Five crew members who leapt to safety from the deck said the sudden conflagration was too intense to rescue anyone who had been sleeping below deck.

Many of those assembled at twilight for a candlelight vigil outside the pier’s Heal the Bay Aquarium are members of the Southern California diving community.

“We’re all committed to the environment and ensuring that our oceans are clean — they’re our lifeblood,” said diver Greg Helmer of West L.A. “… We all feel a great loss.”

Following remarks by Heal the Bay CEO Shelley Luce and California Assemblymember Richard Bloom, a bagpiper playing traditional Scottish songs led mourners toward the beach along the north side of the pier. As they passed, pier visitors paused from their revelries to watch the solemn procession below. Beneath the pier, many who carried electric candles or flowers formed a circle around the 3½-year-old daughter of a local dive shop worker, who spread white rose petals on the sand as the bagpiper played “Amazing Grace.” The sound of crashing waves followed the mourners as they processed silently back up to the beach on the pier’s south side.

Many vigil participants who spoke to The Argonaut were deeply shaken by the tragedy. Some had reservations about participating in overnight diving trips until the cause of the Conception fire is known, but most said they’re ready to go back out on the water.

“All divers in California are affected by this whether they knew someone [on board] or not,” said Dina Richman, an attorney from Santa Monica. “We’re all united by a love of the ocean and of diving, and I think by diving more we honor those who died.”