LOS ANGELES — The Coast Guard signaled Wednesday that it would undertake a series of recommended safety reforms for passenger vessels in the wake of a 2019 scuba dive boat fire that killed 34 people off the California coast, but a top transportation official cautioned that any changes might take years to enact.
The blaze broke out aboard the Conception during the final night of a three-day Labor Day weekend scuba diving excursion near Santa Cruz Island off Santa Barbara. The tragedy marked the deadliest marine disaster in California in modern history.
In December, Congress mandated that the Coast Guard review its regulations for small passenger vessels. The law, included in the National Defense Authorization Act, also added new requirements regarding fire detection and suppression.
In a letter dated Wednesday, Coast Guard Vice Admiral Scott Buschman said he agreed with seven recommendations suggested by the National Transportation Safety Board after the Conception tragedy. The recommendations include installing more comprehensive smoke detector systems, requiring safety management systems, upgrading emergency exits and making mandatory inspection checks on roving watches.
It’s not clear when the recommendations could be put in place. Coast Guard officials did not respond Thursday to a request for comment. Buschman’s letter was first reported by the Los Angeles Times.
Families of Southern California boat fire victims push for stronger boating regulations
FILE – In this Sept. 2, 2019, file photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the dive boat Conception is engulfed in flames after a deadly fire broke out aboard the commercial scuba diving vessel off the Southern California Coast. The captain of a scuba diving boat that caught fire and sank off the coast of California last year, killing 34 people who were trapped below deck, was indicted Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020, on federal manslaughter charges for one of the deadliest maritime disasters in recent U.S. history. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP, File)
Southern California boat captain charged with manslaughter in fire that killed 34
FILE – In this Sept. 2, 2019, file photo provided by the Ventura County Fire Department, VCFD firefighters respond to a fire aboard the Conception dive boat fire in the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of Southern California. Federal authorities are expected to vote Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020 on what likely sparked a fire aboard a scuba dive boat last year that killed 34 people off the coast of Southern California. The pre-dawn blaze aboard the Conception is one of California’s deadliest maritime disasters, prompting both criminal and safety investigations into the Sept. 2, 2019 tragedy that claimed the lives of 33 passengers and one crew member on a Labor Day weekend expedition near an island off Santa Barbara. (Ventura County Fire Department via AP, File)
Owners of Southern California dive boat faulted for fire that killed 34
While investigators said they couldn’t determine what caused the fire because the boat burned and sank, they say it started toward the back of the main deck salon, where divers had plugged in phones, flashlights and other items with combustible lithium ion batteries. After the fire, the Coast Guard issued a bulletin recommending a limit on the unsupervised use of lithium ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords.
In October, the NTSB blamed the Conception’s owners for a lack of oversight and the boat’s captain for failing to post a roving night watchman aboard the vessel, which allowed the fire to quickly spread and trap the 33 passengers and one crew member below deck. Captain Jerry Boylan and four crew members, all of whom were sleeping above deck, escaped.
Coast Guard records also showed that since 1991, no owner, operator or charterer has been issued a citation or fine for failure to post a roving patrol, prompting the NTSB to fault the Coast Guard for not enforcing that requirement and recommend it develop a program to ensure boats with overnight passengers actually have the watchman.
The NTSB has no regulatory or enforcement power, and can only suggest nonbinding recommendations to the Coast Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration, which previously have routinely ignored the agency’s suggestions.
NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt told The Associated Press that while the safety board appreciated the Coast Guard’s response, “what really matters is their follow-up action.”
“They might concur with something that we’re saying but pushing it over the finish line becomes a very slow process,” he said.
Sumwalt said even though Congress has authorized it, the recommendations still have to go through several layers of bureaucracy before they can become requirements.
The Conception’s captain, Jerry Boylan, is scheduled to appear in federal court Tuesday to face 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter for “misconduct, negligence and inattention” by failing to train his crew, conduct fire drills and post a roving night watchman on the Conception when the fire broke out Sept. 2, 2019.
The boat’s owners, Truth Aquatics Inc., have not been charged criminally.