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Northbrook native Allie Kurtz was among 34 people who died in a California boat fire on Monday, Sept. 2.
Alan P. Henry, Freelance Reporter
4:09 am CDT September 9, 2019

Allie Kurtz’s journey through life was brief but impactful. It was lived on her own terms, shaped by compassion, an infectious and adventurous spirit, and the urge to help create a better world.

That journey was cut short on Monday, Sept. 2, when at age 26 the Northbrook native died as a scuba diving boat crew member alongside 33 others in an explosion and fire that consumed a dive boat off the coast of southern California.

And yet, as family and friends coped with tragedy and mourned her loss, there was peace.

“She just wanted to follow her dream of the ocean and the sea and diving. And that’s what she wanted to do. That’s where she was happy at,” said her mother, Sherry McDonough, in an interview aired on NPR.

“She’s still in the seas. She passed away doing what she loved,” said her father, Robert Kurtz, in an Associated Press report.

Allie grew up in Evanston and Northbrook, where for a time she attended Glenbrook North. She attended the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati her senior year and graduated in 2011. 

At SCPA, she quickly made a positive impression.

"She would walk into a room and it would brighten up, said Charles Meyer, her date at his junior prom in a report on WKRC TV. “She had the biggest smile. You could just connect with her instantly. She could have a great time, or if you were feeling down, she could get serious and really pick you back up. She was always just a ray of hope.”

Out of high school, Allie quickly acted on her thirst for adventure, traveling through Europe before returning to the U.S. and settling in California to pursue a career in the entertainment industry.

Brian Planko, Paramount’s executive vice president worldwide for creative advertising, hired her on the spot in 2014, and she quickly worked her way up from an executive assistant to a creative ad manager. 

In that role, she helped develop campaigns for the “Mission Impossible” movies, and worked on the marketing teams and developed TV spots. At the same time, she participated in a one-on-one company mentoring program called “Kindergarten to Cap and Gown,” where she spent time with elementary school children helping them with school work or simply being a friend. She also volunteered in the company’s Viacommunity day of service. 

“She was the most good-natured human being I’ve ever met, and it’s incredible how in her short time she brought so many people together that don’t even cross paths on a daily basis,” said Pianko in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “I’m sure I’d be working for her if she stayed, she just found a greater purpose in life.” 

More specifically, said Panko, “she didn’t leave Paramount to just be a dive instructor. She literally left to save the world.”

Pianko said Kurtz told him she was going to pursue a graduate degree in marine biology so that she could work on saving reefs. To that end, she was already a volunteer at Reef Check California, an environmental non-governmental organization that helps monitor the health of the state’s coastlines, and was volunteering at the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute, which helps rescue and rehabilitate marine mammals. 

And in August, she received her most recent diving certification and obtained an Australian work visa so she could work there during California’s scuba diving off season.

To further immerse herself in the aquatic life, Allie took a job in the office of Truth Aquatics, the scuba tour company, and began as a cook on one of their other boats before being promoted to deckhand on the ill-fated Conception boat. 

The 33 passengers and six crew members aboard the 79-foot boat were on a three-day excursion to the islands that form the Channel Islands off the Santa Barbara coast.

A mayday call on a fully engaged fire on the boat went out at 3:15 a.m. on Sept. 2. Allie and all the passengers were asleep on a lower deck. Flames blocked a narrow stairway and an escape hatch leading to the upper decks, virtually sealing their deaths, authorities told the AP. 

The five other crew members, including the captain, who were awake and on the bridge at the time, jumped overboard, and were rescued by a boat anchored nearby.

Among many parting words, the following was offered by Allie’s 20-year-old sister Olivia Kurtz in an interview with the AP. 

“She wanted to go on the Conception so bad … and she was finally able to work that boat,” she said. “She left this world doing something she absolutely loved. This was her dream, and she was finally able to fulfill this dream.”

The National Transportation Safety Board is in the midst of a week-to-10-day investigation of the fire. One theory it is investigating is that lithium batteries in the passengers’ underwater cameras may have overheated while charging and ignited the fire, WKRC reported.