Hollywood Mourns Colleagues Lost in California Boat Fire

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A scene from a public vigil for victims of the Conception boat fire on September 5 in Santa Monica.

Entertainment-industry co-workers remember special effects designer Charles "Chuck" McIlvain and former creative ad manager Allie Kurtz as "inspirational" and "the most good- natured human being I’ve ever met."

Among the victims of the deadly Labor Day fire that killed 33 people aboard the dive boat Conception were at least two people with ties to Hollywood, leaving their friends and former co-workers reeling from the loss. 

As the week ended, their family members and friends gathered in L.A. at a Thursday evening vigil called "Heal the Bay," at the aquarium under the Santa Monica pier, to mourn their loss and search for answers, while social media feeds lit up with remembrances and outpourings of grief.  

Charles “Chuck” McIlvain, 44, was a visual effects designer for Walt Disney’s Imagineering who worked on dozens of films and TV shows, including at Netflix, and on big theatrical productions like Spider-Man and Green Lantern. Allie Kurtz, 25, was a former advertising manager at Paramount, from 2014 to earlier this year, until she left to pursue new opportunities. 

Friends of McIlvain recalled the special effects guru as a belly-laughing font of energy and enthusiasm. Shari B. Ellis, who had worked as a VFX coordinator with McIlvain recalled an incident when, during production of Green Lantern in 2011, McIlvaine seemed to be having an uncharacteristically rough day. Ellis and several other colleagues hired Sergio Flores, better known as “Sexy Sax Man,” a saxophone-playing entertainer and L.A. staple who frequents the party circuit, to cheer him up. Flores serenaded McIlvain with a rendition of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.”  

“Chuck was the kind of person who was always so 'up' that when he was down, you wanted to do that kind of thing for him,” recalls Ellis, “It cheered him up right away.” 

“He must have answered a thousand of my dumb questions and got me out of more scrapes than I can remember,” animation specialist Max Tyrie wrote in a Facebook posting, “If this tragedy had befallen someone else, Chuck is the kind of guy I would go and sit with, to talk to him, to try and make sense of it all.”

“Chuck’s amazing passion for life and refusal to let bad things get in the way of a good time was infectious and inspirational to all who knew him,” said Netflix Studio Strategy and Analysis manager John Patrick in another Facebook post, “We spent many hours at Imageworks huddled in a little room together battling impossible shots and gut laughing at Chuck’s irreverent humor. The thing I remember most about Chuck is that I just loved being around him, plain and simple.”

The Santa Barbara-based Conception caught fire on Labor Day, while it lay at anchor off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, 20 miles off the mainland. Five crewmembers escaped to safety while a sixth, the Ohio native Kurtz, remained below with the passengers, unable to do so. Flames consumed the vessel within minutes, preventing the crew from effecting any rescue.

Kurtz, who began at Paramount in 2014, worked her way up from an executive’s assistant to a creative ad manager. She helped develop campaigns for the Mission Impossible movies, and worked on the marketing teams and developed TV spots. 

It’s been reported that Kurtz left Hollywood to pursue her dream of being a dive instructor. But according to former colleagues, her reasons were more nuanced.  

“She didn’t leave Paramount to just be a dive instructor,” said Brian Pianko, Paramount’s executive vp worldwide creative advertising and Kurtz’s close friend and former boss, “She literally left to save the world.” Pianko says Kurtz told him she had plans to pursue a graduate degree in marine biology so that she could work on saving reefs. Kurtz was a volunteer at Reef Check California, an environmental NGO that helps monitor the health of the state’s coastlines, and spent free time exploring her adopted state’s marine byways with her boyfriend of several years. 

According to family and friends, Kurtz had a thirst for adventure. After graduating high school in Ohio, Kurtz traveled Europe, studied and worked in Paris briefly before returning to the U.S., settling in California to pursue a career in the entertainment industry.  

Pianko hired her on the spot when she applied at Paramount, and soon Kurtz was being fast-tracked to a promising career in advertising. 

At Paramount 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. Pianko says Kurtz was beloved by everyone in the company, from people in senior positions to the UPS driver who delivered packages, who was a frequent recipient of hugs from Kurtz. 

Apart from her passion for the outdoors and for the ocean, Kurtz made a profound impression on her colleagues.  

“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,” says Pianko. “I’m sure I’d be working for her if she stayed, she just found a greater purpose in life.” 

“She was an amazing worker in general, but more than that she cared about the people around her and was friends with everyone in the office. She had a very unique style, too — and wasn’t afraid to be herself,”one of her fellow co-workers, Cynthia Dew, wrote in an email to The Hollywood Reporter. Dew recalled how Kurtz encouraged her to get a standing desk to help her back pain and went so far as to put her in touch with the right people at the company to help her. 

“I joked all the time that she started the standing desk epidemic in the office because after that every one had one,” says Dew, “All because of her. It’s just a small example of how she always helped make people’s experience at work better. My heart is so broken for her family and everyone impacted by this terrible tragedy.”  

On Thursday evening, with the scope of the tragedy beginning to sink in, an L.A. environmental group called “Heal the Bay” sponsored an evening vigil at the aquarium under Santa Monica pier to honor the victims.

Associate editors Katie Kilkenny and Sharareh Drury contributed to this report.