Allie Kurtz gave up a job in the movie industry to live her dream of working on the water, and when she landed a job as deckhand on a scuba diving boat, she was thrilled.
She was on that boat, the Conception, when it caught fire and sank off the Southern California coast, the only crew member among the 34 people trapped below deck as flames blocked their only way out.
Friends from South America to Europe are mourning the 26-year-old, whose family said they will miss her lively, adventurous spirit but know she died doing what she loved most.
U.S. & World
"She wanted to go on the Conception so bad. She wanted to work that boat, and she was finally able to work that boat," her 20-year-old sister Olivia Kurtz told The Associated Press. "She left this world doing something she absolutely loved. This was her dream, and she was finally able to fulfill this dream."
Five crew members, including the captain, who were above deck managed to escape after fire engulfed the boat as the victims slept early Monday during a three-day scuba diving excursion.
Flames moved quickly through the 75-foot boat, blocking a narrow stairway and an escape hatch leading to the upper decks and giving those below virtually no chance of getting out, authorities said.
Olivia Kurtz said she believes the crew typically had one person sleep below deck to help passengers. Her father, Robert, said he doesn't blame the diving company that gave his daughter the chance to pursue her dreams.
"She's still in the seas," he said during an interview Wednesday in Santa Barbara. He said he hopes to scatter her ashes in the ocean from an earlier scuba boat she worked on. "She passed away doing what she loved."
Both flew out to California immediately after the fire. They wore navy hooded sweatshirts from the scuba tour company where Allie Kurtz worked and heart-shaped pins with her name. Olivia said she planned to get a tattoo to remember her older sister.
A framed photo left at a victims memorial at Santa Barbara Harbor included the message, "I love you Allie - and you know I always will!"
Kurtz was free-spirited and determined, her family said. She worked in the office for Truth Aquatics, the scuba tour company, and started out on another one of their boats as a cook before moving to the Conception.
Passengers who knew her have been sending messages to her family saying how much she touched their lives during their travels. She also did volunteer work to help wounded sea lions, her family said, joking that she loved the water so much that she had gills and fins.
Kurtz, who also has a younger brother, grew up in Illinois. She was well traveled, studied theater and opera and always loved the water, said her grandmother, Doris Lapporte. When she was younger, she was on the dive and swim teams and used to joke that she wanted to be a pirate.
"Her love was just always, always the water," Lapporte, 71, told the AP in a phone interview. "She would joke, `I am going to be a pirate one day."'
For a while, Kurtz worked in movie promotions at Paramount and lived in Santa Monica, near Los Angeles. She put in long hours but felt her heart wasn't in it and went earlier this year to Santa Barbara, an idyllic seaside city about 100 miles to the northwest, to head out on the water, Lapporte said.
Kurtz was recently promoted to work as a deckhand on the Conception. She went on a five-day trip and then the three-day excursion to the wind-swept isles that form Channel Islands National Park in the Pacific Ocean.
An avid reader, Kurtz planned to collect books on the history of the islands so she could share more about them with tourists. She received her most recent diving certification in August and obtained an Australian work visa with the idea of traveling there to work during California's scuba diving offseason, Lapporte said.
She loved diving, but above all travel, and she wanted to own a boat someday, Lapporte said.
After getting the visa, she texted her grandmother and told her she had finally achieved her dream "of being a pirate," Lapporte said.
"She had so much life in her. So much everything," she said.