Some 17 months have passed since the worst maritime disaster in recent memory, and new safety recommendations will now be implemented by the U.S. Coast Guard.
On Wednesday, USCG Vice Adm. Scott A. Buschman wrote a letter to Robert L. Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation and Safety Board, responding to the seven new safety recommendations made by the NTSB in the wake of the Conception boat fire.
The new safety recommendations were outlined in the Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act introduced by U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Ventura County, in 2019. The bill became law Jan. 1 as part of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.
“I am grateful to see that the Coast Guard is moving forward with implementing my Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act in a timely manner,” Rep. Carbajal said in a statement. “The Conception boat fire was an avoidable incident, and I’m thankful the Coast Guard is taking the necessary and imperative steps to protect lives by ensuring a similar incident does not happen again.”
Some of the key measures in the law include: smoke detectors and interconnected fire alarms; two means of escape; and roving watch and safety management systems.
All new and currently-in-use small passenger vessels like the Conception will be required to have smoke detectors and interconnected fire alarms in all accommodation spaces. The Conception had a smoke detector in the room where passengers slept, but no smoke detector where the fire is believed to have started or interconnected fire alarms that would have been triggered if one area detected smoke.
All vessels like the Conception are now required to have no fewer than two independent avenues of escape. The Coast Guard is issuing a rulemaking to update this safety requirement.
The Conception had two exits in the sleeping quarters. However both led to areas engulfed by fire. Moreover, one exit was a narrow and difficult-to-reach ceiling hatch.
Finally, current Coast Guard regulations require a nighttime roving watch. However, oversight is lacking. The Coast Guard is issuing new guidance to mandate the logging of completed night watch patrols and going through a notice and comment process for a rulemaking on safety management systems.
A total of 34 people died in the fire, many of whom are believed to have died from smoke inhalation in the bunkroom.
In December 2020, the boat captain of the Conception, 67-year-old Jerry Nehl Boylan, was indicted by a federal grand jury on 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter. The indictment alleges he, as the captain and master of the vessel, “was responsible for the safety and security of the vessel, its crew and its passengers,” read a statement released by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
In September 2020, the National Transportation Safety Board released more than 1,600 pages of investigation information related to the dive boat fire. The documents revealed the moments leading up to and following the boat catching fire, including insight from crew members.
In October 2020, the NTSB determined that the probable cause of the boat fire tragedy was the failure of Truth Aquatics Inc., which owned and operated the vessel, to provide effective oversight of the vessel and crew member operations.
The board could not determine the origin area or cause of the fire from wreckage examination. But through interviews with the five surviving crew members, examination of the similar vessel Vision and statements from previous passengers, investigators were able to predict what the origin and cause of the fire relied on.
In January 2020, some nine months before the NTSB held its hearing into the matter, four families of the victims of the boat tragedy filed a lawsuit against Truth Aquatics.
Attorneys Robert Glassman of L.A.-based law firm Panish, Shea, & Boyle and Robert Mongeluzzi and Jeffrey Goodman, maritime lawyers from Philadelphia-based Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky, said the filings are “the most comprehensive to date and assert that the massive inferno — likely caused by an unsafe lithium-ion-battery charging station — was foreseeable and preventable in part due to the failing to have a mandatory overnight safety watch.”
The claims allege the boat fire was started in or near the galley, which is where the lithium-ion battery charging stations would have been located.
Three days after the blaze broke out, attorneys for Truth Aquatics, owner Glen Fritzler and his wife Dana, filed a petition in federal court seeking to fend off any civil actions. The petition cited an 1851 maritime law that could limit the owners’ liability.
The lawsuit announced in January 2020 was filed in response to the petition. Other similar claims were previously filed. The widow of a passenger and a crew member who broke his leg getting to safety have filed claims challenging the liability petition.
“The defendants killed these victims by breaking the law and failing to have a roving night watch whose job was to prevent the very catastrophe that occurred,” Mr. Mongeluzzi said at the time. “Rather than mourn those whose lives they took with their failure to obey the law, they lawyered up and mercilessly filed an action to limit their liability before many of the bodies of these victims were even recovered. We will demolish their frivolous limitation of liability claim and hold them accountable for the outrageous harm they have caused.”