By Stefanie Dazio and John Rogers
Just hours after a fire raced through a scuba diving boat, a memorial started sprouting up to commemorate the lives of 34 people who died trapped below decks.
Days later, it has all but enveloped the sprawling harbor boardwalk where the boat, the Conception, once docked in Santa Barbara. Hundreds of flowers, framed photographs, flags, candles, seashells, swim fins and other mementos stretched for yards, some accompanied by heartfelt expressions of grief.
“Our city is weeping for the dive group lost at sea. Our heart is breaking for their loved ones left behind,” read a sign with a large red heart intertwined with an anchor posted outside a paddle-board shop.
Across the harbor, behind a jetty, a second memorial grew Wednesday, with flowers framing a permanent plaque commemorating all those who have been lost at sea.
The poignant displays, though common following a tragedy, showed the impact of the fire on Santa Barbara, a picturesque community of historic buildings, hilltop mansions and pristine beaches. Many residents knew those who worked on the Conception or other boats like it or had dived from the decks themselves.
JJ Lambert, who arrived at the boardwalk with his fiancée, Jenna Marsala, recalled diving off the Conception when he was young.
Several of the victims were families on the boat to mark a birthday or just celebrate a good time, and Lambert, 38, wondered, “What father and son were going out there for a dive weekend?”
As the boardwalk memorial grew, many people stopped to kneel quietly.
Twelve-year-old CJ Andelman arrived with her mother, Courtney, and her harp. She played “Silent Night,” ‘’Greensleeves” and other songs as her mother left seashells she had gathered.
“I think everyone really appreciates the gift of music, and I feel like we owe it to the people who died here to give them that,” the Santa Barbara girl said.
Orlando Aldana dropped off the first 34 candles, one for each victim.
“I saw the flowers earlier when I was here, and I just felt like, well, it’s reaching nighttime,” the 42-year-old from Santa Barbara said. “This is what us Latinos do: We light candles for our dead.”
To much of the outside world, Santa Barbara is the American Riviera, a sun-dappled California coastal town framed by sandy beaches, a quaint downtown, a 233-year-old Spanish Mission and a harbor filled with pleasure boats that attract tourists from all over.
Santa Barbara and its neighboring community of Montecito are home to Oprah Winfrey and numerous other wealthy celebrities living in multimillion-dollar mansions. One of them, Rob Lowe, tweeted Monday that he had been on the Conception himself many times.
“My heart breaks for those onboard,” he wrote.
But both Santa Barbara and Montecito and another neighboring community, Isla Vista, are no strangers to recent tragedies, as several people noted.
A ferocious rainstorm last winter sent tons of mud crashing into Montecito homes, killing 23 people and injuring more than 150. It had been preceded by one of the largest wildfires in California history, which had stripped the hillsides bare.
In 2014, a 22-year-old man stabbed his three roommates to death at his Isla Vista apartment before going on a shooting rampage that killed three University of California, Santa Barbara, students and wounded others. He shot himself to death as police closed in.
Several people said the latest tragedy felt particularly personal, however, adding that like Lowe, Lambert and others, they had been on the Conception themselves or knew others who had.
Daniel Butts and his wife, Lisa Olsen, saw divers boarding the boat Friday night for their Labor Day weekend journey. Olsen recalled the couple thinking, “Oh, that looks like it’s going to be a fun trip.”
“We probably saw a few of the people that vanished in that fire,” Butts said as he and his wife left a floral bouquet.