They were 21st-century explorers, in love with the world’s natural wonders as much as they were with each other.
Drawn by the natural beauty of earth and sea, Neal Baltz and Patricia Beitzinger often left their Ahwatukee home far behind to explore caves in Hawaii, swim with stingrays off the Mexican coast, scale peaks in the Andes and scuba dive around the Galapagos Islands.
In some ways, the two-night diving trip the couple took on Labor Day weekend on the 75-foot Conception off the coast of Santa Cruz was in keeping with their adventurers’ hearts.
“Santa Cruz offers more places to find good diving during rough weather periods than any other island due to its size and many coves,” the Conception’s owners, Truth Aquatics, said on its website.
“Your island excursion with Truth Aquatics is sure to be one you’ll never forget,” the operator says on its website, adding, “At Truth Aquatics, your captain and crew will do everything in their power to make your trip an enjoyable one.”
But the trip turned hearbreakingly tragic as the Conception became a death trap.
Baltz and Beitzinger were among the 33 passengers and one crew member who died in an early morning fire on Labor Day. Most were casualties of what authorities believe was smoke inhalation.
The fire, whose origin is still undetermined, burned so rapidly that the sleeping passengers in the deck below never had a chance to escape as the boat burned, sank, before landing upside down at the bottom of the ocean.
So far, the investigation has churned up some serious safety flaws concerning the doomed ship. And on Sept. 8, FBI agents swarmed Truth Aquatics’ offices and two other diving ships, confiscating boxes of documents.
In the week following the tragic deaths of 33 of the 38 occupants on the Conception, countless news stories, social media messages and interviews provided a detailed picture of Ahwatukee residents, Baltz, 42, and Beitzinger, 48.
Baltz was an electronics design engineer for Cadence Designs Systems and Beitzinger a nutritionist for a Scottsdale endocrinology practice.
Their generous, amiable and playful personalities touched so many lives and their deaths sent shock waves through the community; giving way to almost inconsolable anguish.
Typical were the comments of Aimee Des Lauriers of Scottsdale, who posted on Facebook:
“I have known them for ages, they are family to us. I have been shaken beyond words all week. … My heart won’t be the same, the world was a better place for having had them here.”
The couple’s personalities seemed identical, mirror images of people who loved to laugh, who could be “goofy” at times in pursuit of that laughter from others and – most of all – embraced travel to exotic locales and closer places of natural beauty every chance they got.
One woman told the Los Angeles Times that Beitzinger would counsel her clients on how to eat better and lose weight, but often peppered those conversations with travel stories.
“Unfailingly, she was smiling,” Linda Reynolds said. “She was so energetic, and lively, and funny – someone that you wanted to spend time with.”
Baltz was frequently described as generous with an endless enthusiasm for life and an endearingly friendly manner.
Michael Pierce, the director of enology and viticulture at the Southwest Wine Center – which Baltz cofounded – recounted in one interview how Baltz made the four-hour roundtrip drive to the Verde Valley every week to teach wine classes and make wine.
Baltz had endowed a scholarship at the school and gave $5,000 to turn an old racquetball court into a wine-making center.
He was not above being “goofy,” Pierce added, recalling how Baltz once put corks over his eyes during a bottling session and ran through the cellar, pretending to be an alien.
“He’s one of those people who was an absolute pleasure to know,” Pierce said. “He went through life with joy.”
Beitzinger was fondly remembered by her niece, Hannah Beitzinger of Cincinnati, Ohio, who said, “She’s one of the coolest people I ever met.”
“She was adventurous and brave and always living every day as full as she could, she was always going on these amazing trips around the world,” Hannah said. “And so goofy. She has a great sense of humor and was always smiling and laughing. And Neal was the same way, they were perfect for each other and I considered him my uncle as well.”
She told AFN her aunt had always been an adventurer but wasn’t sure if she got into scuba diving because of Baltz.
Ross Hughes, who became friends with Baltz when they were in high school in Millstadt, Illinois, told a local newspaper there last week: “If I could just say one word about him, it’s ‘genuine.’”
“He did what made him happy and what he liked to do and what stimulated his mind,” Hughes said. “He did everything his own way. He did it how he wanted to do it.”
While at Belleville West High School, Baltz was captain of the wrestling team and was remembered as “super smart” and always joking around.
“He always had me laughing about something and he was that person you could always call on when you needed someone to talk to,” one childhood friend posted on Facebook.
Hughes told the Belleville Democrat newspaper how Baltz, as a high school senior, was involved in a minor car accident and set out to prove that it wasn’t his fault by using physics to reconstruct the scene.
Baltz measured skid marks, calculated the friction generated by the car’s tires against the pavement, and figured out the weight of both vehicles to prove his point.
“That’s just how his brain worked,” Hughes said. “He thought: ‘They weren’t going to pull one over on me.’ That’s just so Neal.”
Though neither Baltz nor Beitzinger abhorred putting their private lives on social media, they loved to share pictures from their adventures.
Dozens of videos and hundreds of photos from their trips to the Grand Canyon, the Andes and other places are posted online – clearly as Baltz’s testament to his awe for nature’s beauty.
Many of those photos depict the couple smiling, laughing broadly, mingling with locals or laughing with each other in Peru, the Grand Canyon and countless other places.
“We adventured/explored more together in the last six years than most people experience in their entire lifetime,” said Adi Cuevas.
“They were both so full of life, easy-going, excellent travel companions, genuine, humble, generous, thoughtful and had the best sense of humor,” Cuevas added, ticking off a list of trips ranging from Utah to South America with activities ranging from “hiking nearly every trail in Arizona” to celebrating Baltz’s birthday in a helicopter ride over Glacier National Park.
We spent endless amounts of hours together on and off trails – our time spent on the road/in the car together was sometimes more fun than our actual destination,” Cuevas continued. She recalled how “Patricia always managed to find the most difficult hikes for us” and how “Neal always carried an old school traditional map.” Her fondest memory is how they all “always chose to sleep under the stars over a hotel.
“We called ourselves the Super Tramp Hikers and would joke about being modern-day hippies,” Cuevas said, lamenting: “Neal and Patricia truly knew how to live life to its fullest – traveling the world, always learning something new – enriching their hearts and their minds, always. My heart is literally crushed knowing I lost my Arizona family and my adventure soulmates.”
With such tributes, it was small wonder that Millstadt bank president John Baltz, Neal’s father, told local TV stations last week: “They went to heaven doing something they loved together.”
Over the weekend, friends gathered at the Southwest Wine Center at Yavapai College in Clarkdale to toast Baltz and remember his generous, affable soul.
The center posted a message recalling how Baltz “loved wine.”
It went on to say:
“After years of experimenting at home, fermenting grapes in his bathtub, he enrolled in the enology program at Yavapai College in Northern Arizona’s Verde Valley wine region. He made the hour-and-a-half drive to Yavapai’s Clarkdale campus from his home in Ahwatukee, working in the vineyards and cellars, and sometimes sleeping overnight in his Ford F-150. Neal graduated from the viticulture and enology program in 2017.
“Baltz was a goofy, friendly classmate who got along with everyone, keeping spirits up during the early mornings of the hard, physical work that comes with running a vineyard...He went through life with joy.”
The center established the Neal Baltz Memorial Scholarship to benefit students enrolled in the Yavapai College viticulture and enology program” and to “honor Neal’s memory in perpetuity.”
Though the precise circumstances of how they met are unclear, Baltz and Beitzinger began dating about eight years ago through what friend Vanessa Ryan of Ahwatukee called “common interests.”
Not long afterward, they moved into a two-story home in Mountain Park Ranch, where they became the next-door neighbors to the family of Ahwatukee Realtor Ben Quillinan, who also had represented them in the purchase of the home.
“I would say we were close neighbors,” Quillinan said. “We were always talking to each other over the wall in the backyard or if it was like Halloween, we’d grab our chairs and sit in the driveway with them. I had a key to his house in case anything happened and he was out of town.”
“They were very adventurous,” Quillinan continued. “They were life-loving people.”
Baltz often regaled Quillinan with tales of the couple’s adventures.
He recalled how Baltz made wine at home, spending hours perfecting batches. He also traveled once a week to the wine center in Cottonwood, where he taught classes and made wine.
It was while the couple was out of town on one of their adventures almost three years ago, when disaster struck their home, forcing them to move into a home Beitzinger owned in Chandler.
For two days while the couple was on an adventure, Quillinan recalled, water had been spewing out of a broken plastic pipe “no bigger than my pinkie” in an upstairs bathroom.
Quillinan finally saw water seeping from beneath the garage door. But by that time, the damage had been done.
Almost the entire first-floor ceiling had fallen.
Baltz later said, his water bill indicated that as much as 20,000 gallons had gushed out of that pipe.
The house had to be virtually gutted, but to Baltz’s dismay, a prolonged fight with the insurance company kept him and Beitzinger from returning home.
“They didn’t want to pay him everything he was owed. They were trying to get him to settle for less,” Quillinan said of the insurance company, calling it a “fiasco.”
The 2,100-square-foot home’s interior “was destroyed. Everything had to completely come down to the studs and concrete,” he said.
Though the couple “took it in stride,” Quillinan said, “I know it wore on them.”
“Then, once they got that settlement and they were able to start rebuilding; they were much happier,” he added. “It wore on them. At the same time, they continued to go diving in Mexico and traveling.”
The couple had a busy fall planned.
Scott Ryan of Ahwatukee, who with his wife Vanessa were close friends of the couple and regularly played "Trivia" with them, said Baltz and Beitzinger were planning a trip to the Northwest.
A newspaper reported they also planned a trip to Indonesia at some point this fall.
As the investigation into the fire continues, results of the probe are emerging. Various news outlets have report investigators have found serious safety flaws, including the lack of a night watchman to walk around the boat while passengers sleep; keeping alert to structual and weather conditions in the hopes of avoiding such tragedies.
Though the company owns the boat has declined comment, it went to court two days after the fire to prevent relatives of the dead passengers from suing the firm.
At press time, the couple’s funeral arrangements had not been made.
“We’re still working on that,” Hannah Beitzinger told AFN on Sunday. “Her remains were just identified a few days ago, so it’s taking some time.”
To make a donation toward the endowment at the Southwest Wine Center: yc.edu/baltz.