Remembering the Salika family
Over a year later the memory of the Salika family of the California boat fire still burns
By Adam P. Summers
Remembering the Salika family: I met Diana Adamic the way I have met thousands of fellow marine enthusiasts, on the back deck of a dive boat as we both sorted through gear, pulled wetsuits over dive skins, and checked the fit of stuff that had been dry for months. There are not many women past 50 who strut onto the boat in a tiger-striped dive skin, and I had never seen someone take such unabashed delight in the whimsy of the pattern. Not tall, a wide face with a huge smile on the verge of breaking into outright laughter, dirty blond hair cut to a practical length, sturdy hands that moved with the economical assurance of someone who has dived many, many times.
I evaluate every diver on the deck as I gear up. It is a 40-year habit that I’m unlikely to break. It settles my mind to put each diver in a risk category, to guess at how long they have been breathing underwater, and what it is that brings them to the sport. Diana was clearly not going to affect my dive at all, and just as obviously had that excitement for the water that draws me in. We talked about what we might see, the feeling of 3D, which style of buoyancy compensator was best for comfort and travel. On this trip, aimed at parents wanting to dive while their kids got trained in the joys and mysteries of SCUBA, all the divers on the ‘parents’ boats were good. Good enough to be easy in their gear and easy with themselves.
Diana’s buddy Steve Salika made me pause. He was unpacking dive computers, playing with buckles, and setting up a very snazzy rebreather kit. I wondered how Diana would dive with a guy who had such different gear. It turned out she did just what I would have done. She hovered through her dive, always aware of where Steve was, but not treating him as a lifeline. Realistically, he was not one. His gear was not suited for giving air to someone else and his control over his gas mixture left him deeper than the rest of us. Her safety buddy was the surface, and her experiential buddies were all of us.
I have seen lots of couples who were not effective dive buddies for one reason or another. It usually bespeaks some basic incompatibility; a splitting of desires, inclinations, or abilities that transcends the desire to do something beautiful and difficult together. Not so with Diana and Steve. They just spoke different dialects of the same joyful language. They reveled in each of the dives and I was impressed by how much joint attention they had, though they were separated by 30 or 40 feet for the entire dive. At the surface, they smiled and laughed, drank water, and ate watermelon, while happily letting nitrogen leach out of the tissues saturated by the high pressures of the dive. They really did go on the same dive though they were not classically ‘together’ for the experience. I sought out their company because their style was a new one for me. I’ve shoved a long career’s worth of divers into neatly circumscribed boxes, so it was fun to be with a couple who had no spot in my “field guide to the divers I have known”.
On this trip, Sharalyn and I had our two kids, aged 7 and 12, with us. They were learning to dive while we got to blow bubbles in the clear, and very well preserved waters of Bonaire. We saw our kids in passing at lunch but really got to spend time with them when the afternoon dives were over. Diana and Steve’s daughter Tia, sixteen, and a faithful blending of parental features did have an entry in my field guide. She was a passionate young diver secure in her abilities. This young woman had dived the cold, dark murk of the California coast… and liked it. Bonaire was no challenge – it was a warm bathtub full of beautiful fishes, invertebrates, sponges, and corals. A world-sized aquarium out to entertain, educate, and enlighten anyone willing to spend their waking, non-eating hours underwater.
Tia was intensely interested in the marine world and had both background and intelligence to make intellectual leaps that impressed me. Before the week was out I had offered her a spot in my lab working on fish anatomy, CT scans, and 3D printed fish robots. Her dream was to spend time with 3D printers and I was sure she would be a great asset around the lab.
Five months later Tia, Diana, and Steve visited us on the San Juan Islands. Diana was already retired from an engineering career at Apple, and Steve Salika was thinking of pulling the plug at the end of the year. The San Juan Islands, completely coincidentally, was at the top of their list for post-Santa Cruz life. I gave Tia the usual lab tour and watched her light up at the sight of the students digitally dissecting fishes, printing them out in 3D, and actuating them with servos and hydraulics. She was a bit starstruck by the gear, which is exactly how I like young people to react to the place. I want folks to come in who have stars in their eyes, they have the enthusiasm and drive to make new realities with the equipment we have. Tia was enthusiastic about a few weeks over the summer in the lab. Since the Michigan State gymnastics molestation case we cannot house minors at the labs for research or teaching. So we talked over how to get Tia a rental place that either Diana or Steve would stay in while she did her project.
I suspected it would be Diana hanging out with Tia during the summer, but it was Steve I expected to hook in retirement. Steve Salika’s engineering chops and his easy-going, way of talking about technology were simply wonderful. I could see him fitting right into an environment where the people who know what they are doing have to sit back and help the novices make mistakes they can learn from. We shared a laugh over the concept that sometimes you have to let the magic smoke out of a piece of gear in order to really learn its workings. I have not met many folks with his level of skill and interest who were not infected with the need to be bigger, better, stronger, faster than those around them. Steve’s attitude was like his diving – a little deeper than everyone else’s, but quiet, still, informed, and collected. I was looking forward to getting him to intellectually engage with what we were doing in the lab because I was sure he could light up student’s minds.
Though I certainly knew the Salika family; Diana, Tia, and Steve, I knew the dive boat Conception better. Even though I was never on that boat, I have worked dive boats in jobs from deckie to dive instructor, and ‘Conception’ is an exemplar of a type. A short-haul charter boat big enough for 35 punters to eat cheek by jowl after diving. Steel decks and superstructure that ring with every tank set down. Cramped, slightly dank sleeping quarters with low headroom berths, well worn, but clean bedding, and little privacy. A fanatically dedicated crew, at a life stage where getting three days out on the water, is worth more than salary…which is good because the salary is terrible. So are the accommodations.
At the end of the evening as people trickled off to bed to rest up and off-gas for the next days diving, we would head up to the bridge and find corners to sack out for the night. I had an ultralight bag and usually grabbed a spot near the stack that was shaded from the deck light that stayed on all night. As dawn broke, long before the paying customers woke up, we would stow our gear, and filter down to start a quiet breakfast and to get things ready for the early dives.
I spent two years on the great barrier reef in Far North Queensland working a boat much like the Conception. We, five crew, were so excited to be out on the reef watching the visitors light up at the stuff that had lit us up so many times. There is huge positive energy from being around people when they discover something brand new and life-changing. Though technically the whole pile of us were ‘customer service reps’, we were so happy to be out on the water sharing the coolest thing in the world that we never needed a reminder that the customer was always right. The customer allowed us to see the coolest place on earth from the most amazing perspective. The customer let us spend our day’s underwater breathing compressed air and looking at zippy fish and queer invertebrates. We worked our butts off to make their diving experience as smooth and as sweet as we possibly could.
Really, though there are more than twenty years between my time on the Coral Reef and Tia, Diana, and Steve’s Salika’s fateful trip to the Conception there were very few differences. Rather than air, many of the divers would be diving oxygen-enriched Nitrox. More dive computers. Digital rather than film cameras. And lots and lots of lights for making that greenish Southern California water transparent enough for video and still photography.
I have no real idea of what went down in the wee small hours of the night on the 2nd of September 2019. But I can set the stage, and I had a nightmare the night after the tragedy that this is what happened. Dinner on these dive boats is a jolly affair that totally belies the quality of the food. Filling, and hot, but by no means gourmet, 33 divers and 6 crew would have sat down over about 90 minutes and plowed through enough calories to feel gassed up for the cold water diving in the morning. With the dishes cleared and the kitchen clanking with cleaning and prep work for the morning, the galley tables would have transformed into image review workstations, card games, and small knots of like-minded people talking about underwater adventures of recent and distant past. Live-aboard divers are not big drinkers, a beer or two, maybe a margarita on the way back in, but the evening did not wind down in an alcoholic binge. Diving is an up, and there is too much riding on a clear head in the morning to get too serious drinking. This trip was Tia’s Salika birthday trip, so there must have been a little cake, some singing, and a flaming pile of candles to blow out.
Eventually, the gear heads would start getting things ready for the morning. Checking O rings, wiping out the inside of housings with microfiber cloths, pulling our batteries and setting them in chargers, and finding power bricks to plug into larger, housed battery packs. Pretty much everyone would plug in a cell phone. The Formica covered, plywood tables slowly transformed into a flea market of expensive glass, electronics, blinking lights, coiled cords, and flexible arms. The detritus of camera fanatics and divers the world over splayed out, sucking up power for another day recording and characterizing the underwater world. People slowly filtered below decks, changing into sleeping clothes, brushing teeth, and climbing into bunks to lay still long enough for the nitrogen, pushed into the body by diving, to slowly filter out of bones, blood, fat, and muscle. Everyone should have woken early, ready to once more don the extensive gear needed to comfortably dive the cold and murky waters of the Channel Islands.
I was changing the battery in a phone recently and learned first hand about the energy latent in a lithium-ion battery. I must have slightly crimped the softly packaged cell as I pulled it free from its nest. I set it on my coffee table and ten minutes later noticed a thin stream of white smoke coming from it. I picked it up to find it was quite hot, so I walked outside and dropped it on the concrete in front of my office where it promptly burst into flame and burned hot, with thick clouds of opaque white smoke. I physically damaged the cell, but a similar reaction can happen from overcharging. When I think about that dive boat, and my friends lying asleep under the steel decking with the galley right over their heads, I think of those blinking red lights. The blinking lights that mean ‘I am charging’ and that might slow their blinking to a solid glow as they fully charge. Or maybe they go out and a solid green light says ‘I am full of energy now’. I suppose one of those many lithium batteries had a tiny flaw. A flaw that let positive and negative poles interact in a little arc, that started a reaction that led to the battery engulfed in fizzing flames, pouring smoke, setting the Formica, and the plywood aflame. Each battery becoming a pyre of white-hot material and dense choking smoke. The smoke settled and filled the bunk space as the fire above the steel ceiling of the bunk room caught all of the wooden parts alight. Anyone not quietly suffocated by the smoke would have been completely trapped in the sleeping area, unable to open the hatches that led to the interior inferno that was the dining salon.
My friends, my subaquatic people, and a crew member died in that steel-lined room. I feel terrible about the loss. I also can’t stop thinking about the crew that survived. I can put myself right there. Waking to smoke. Trying to get where you know you need to be, but repelled by smoke and heat. Jumping, swimming, climbing into a dingy, making good, smart choices to try to save people. But being completely powerless against the forces in play. Boats burn too well. A fire chief friend said he hated boat fires because a boat is designed to repel water, the tool you need to fight the fire. My friends are gone. That crew is changed forever. A source of total joy has been more than sullied. It has been transformed. I have lost friends to the sea, but never in this way. Never in a way that I can see myself in any of the bunks. There was no bad decision, just a terrible sequence of events that have marked many of us for all time.
Adam P. Summers is a Professor of Biology at the University of Washington