Families of 34 California boat fire victims grieve, advocate

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Clark McIlvain and Kathleen McIlvain hold a photo of their son, Charles McIlvain, at their home on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, in Woodland Hills, Calif. Charles McIlvain was one of 34 people killed when dive boat Conception caught fire and sank off the coast of California on Sept. 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

LOS ANGELES – The snapshots tell the story of a big man with a big, beaming grin.

The McIlvain family passes around the pictures, laughing over their son Charlie's antics captured through the years: Charlie as a youngster camping with a backpack bigger than him, Charlie cheesing for the camera on Christmas with bows stuck to his newly balding head, Charlie in a kilt on his wedding day with lovestruck eyes.

There aren't any new photographs to share, only old memories that bring up pain and grief and unspeakable tragedy barely a year old.

Charles McIlvain died on Sept. 2, 2019, at 44. He was one of 34 victims who were killed aboard the Conception — 33 passengers and a new deckhand — trapped below deck on a scuba diving boat that caught fire and sank off the Southern California coast. The boat's captain — one of five crew members who survived — was indicted Tuesday on federal manslaughter charges for one of the deadliest maritime disasters in modern U.S. history.

“It was so hard to look at pictures of him at first,” Kathleen “Mama K” McIlvain said as she stared at the faded photographs in her lap, “because you just expected him to walk in the door.”

The McIlvains and the grieving families of the 33 other victims have endured a year of firsts — the first anniversary, first birthdays, first holiday season without their loved ones — amid the coronavirus pandemic. It's forced them to mourn both alone, canceling memorials where they had planned to scatter the ashes at sea, and together over Zoom.

The first year has also propelled them into action: The families have formed a group they are calling “Advocacy34” to push for strengthened boating regulations and requirements for passenger vessels, such as improved fire and safety training protocols and the installation and use of monitoring devices that would ensure there is a night watch on deck.

Legislation covering some of the changes the families have championed for passenger vessels like the Conception is included in the National Defense Authorization Act currently before Congress. A vote hasn't been scheduled, but previous bills have traditionally passed with bipartisan support. This year, however, President Donald Trump is threatening to veto the act unless it ends protections for internet companies that shield them from being held liable for material posted by their users.