Family of 3 Including Daughter Celebrating Her 17th Birthday Presumed Dead After Calif. Boat Fire09/05/2019
A family of three’s blissful celebration on the water for their daughter’s 17th birthday turned into a tragedy after a commercial diving boat fire broke out early Monday morning on a Labor Day weekend excursion.
Steve Salika, his wife Diana Adamic, their daughter Tia, and her best friend Berenice Filipe are among the 34 people presumed dead in the incident that saw the 75-foot Conception boat catch fire just after 3 a.m. on Monday while all but five crew members were asleep below deck.
The group of four had embarked on the diving expedition to celebrate Tia’s birthday, according to Margo Peyton, the President of Kids Sea Camps (KSC), where Tia started taking scuba diving lessons from the time she was 6.
“They were celebrating Tia’s birthday just the way Tia wanted: Diving,” Peyton tells PEOPLE. “You know the name of the boat was Conception, and Tia was celebrating that. It was such a great tragedy; this is not a common thing.”
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Peyton recalls how Salika and his wife, who both worked at Apple, passed their love for the water onto their daughter, which allowed her to start diving and experiencing the world from a very young age.
“[Salika and Adamic] have been bringing Tia since 2008 when she was just 6,” Peyton explains. “They’ve been to Fiji three times, with us at Thanksgiving and they traveled to Fiji this year.”
“This family loved the ocean, enjoyed their time together and wanted to spend their time unplugged from the virtual world that was their work life,” she says. “Steve was an avid diver. They were older when they had Tia, and they took her across the world when she was 6 to go diving in Fiji. When she was 8, she was diving in Palau.”
“This family loved diving,” Peyton continues. “How happy they are as a family, underwater, learning about corals and fish. They were an adventurous, fun, family and loved being outdoors. [They] created times to do that.”
Salika and Adamic were especially fond of diving because it gave them a chance to create memories with their daughter while also giving back to other communities.
“They enjoyed going to the villages and meeting the local kids. They always brought donations to the local villagers and the kids,” Peyton notes. “They believed in having a living classroom for her … They wanted her to enjoy their passion.”
“They were just wonderful people… [and] a wonderful family,” she adds. “I know that they would be very sad to think this would deter someone from wanting to dive. One of their favorite things to do.”
When it came to Tia and Berenice’s friendship, the duo was inseparable, Peyton says, noting how both girls were “very sweet,” and “very intelligent coral restoration divers” that were “environmentally-savvy” and “concerned about the environment and protecting the coral reef.”
“Tia traveled with Berenice all the time. They were best friends … [Berenice] was certified last year,” Peyton says. “I think I feel the worst for the parents who let their daughter [Berenice] go.”
In a statement to PEOPLE on Wednesday, Salika, who worked as a Senior Manager at Apple for three decades (which is where he met his wife), was remembered by his former employers as a positive force in the company.
“Steve was a 30-year Apple veteran whose energy and enthusiasm touched so many people across our company throughout his career,” Deirdre O’Brien, senior vice president Retail + People, says. “He met his wife at Apple and was aboard with her and their daughter.”
Besides working at Apple and diving, Adamic also had a passion for helping animals and volunteered her time as a contract Humane Educator at Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter (SCCAS).
The animal shelter remembered Adamic as “kind and insightful, somehow both intense and humble, and above all authentic,” in a post on their Facebook page.
“Her compassionate, inquisitive nature and personal experiences drove her to seek innovated ways to make the community around her a better place. She was an ally to all living things – orphan kittens, wild birds, youth volunteers – and a champion for the natural world around us,” the shelter added.
SCCAS’ president also recalled to PEOPLE how Adamic was always willing to help, describing a time the mother came into the shelter with her husband and daughter on a holiday to help clean and care for the animals.
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“It was overwhelming to be alone and I was not fast/efficient because I normally don’t clean kennels, so it was such a help and relief to have them assist me,” Melanie Sobel with SCCAS tells PEOPLE. “I thought that was so kind for them to spend their holiday that way and what a great lesson/experience it was for those children.”
Above all, Peyton notes that the family died doing the one thing that Adamic and Salika believed was most important in their lives.
“[Adamic and Salika] felt time was the most important thing they could do with their daughter,” she tells PEOPLE. “So glad that they did, because who knew how short it would be.”
After the fire broke out on Monday, five crew members who were awake managed to jump ship and seek refuge on a nearby boat called the Grape Escape, which they traveled to via dinghy.
As of Wednesday afternoon, search teams recovered 33 bodies in the aftermath of the fire, which occurred off of Santa Cruz Island, California. One person is still missing, and authorities have yet to formally identify the victims.
Coast Guard Lt. Zach Farrell said all but one of those left seemingly trapped by flames onboard the 75-foot Conception early Monday have been recovered as of Wednesday afternoon, the Associated Press reported.
Truth Aquatics, which owns the Conception, has not commented.
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