The dive boat on which 34 people died in a Labor Day fire off the California coast had been given an exemption by the Coast Guard from stricter safety rules that were adopted in 1996, according to a new report.
The Los Angeles Times reported the ship, the Conception, did not have to have illuminated exit signs. It also reportedly had smaller escape hatches than those currently allowed.
The Times, quoting sources it did not name, said the escape hatch on the Conception was 24 inches wide. The current standard is 32 inches wide.
The Times report said investigators have not yet determined whether those features of the ship played a role in the tragedy.
The Conception, built in 1981, was among 325 small passenger boats that were built before the standards were imposed and thus given exemptions from the new rules.
Kyle McAvoy, a former Coast Guard chief of the Office of Commercial Vessel Compliance Policy, said older vessels are allowed to avoid obeying new regulations when compliance is either very costly or impractical.
Older vessels “may not be able to change what they have,” said McAvoy, who retired in 2016.
The Conception was owned by Truth Aquatics. Glen Fritzler, owner of the company, said he fully supports safety rules.
“We have always followed Coast Guard regulations and whatever is required,” he said in a statement. “Our past inspections reflect our commitment.”
As part of the investigation, National Transportation Safety Board investigator Jennifer Homendy in September toured the Vision, a sister ship to the Conception.
At the time, she told the Times she was “taken aback” by the small size of the escape hatch.
She said then that she attempted to replicate conditions on the Conception by trying to escape in darkness.
“You have to climb up a ladder and across the top bunk and then push a wooden door up,” she said. “It was a tight space. We couldn’t turn the light on.”
An initial NTSB investigation faulted the Conception for violating a rule requiring roving watch overnight.
In the aftermath of the fire, crew members who survived said they were unable to reach passengers trapped below because of the flames.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Richard Timme, assistant commandant for prevention policy, has said vessel owners and crews are the first line of defense to protect passengers.
“Equally important, the vessel master and crew play an essential role and should be the first to recognize problems and take early corrective action,” he said. “The vessel owner is obligated to support the master and crew’s ability to maintain the vessel and operate it safely.”
The tragedy has shed a new light on vessels allowed to operate without meeting current safety rules.
“I am deeply concerned about the fire and sinking of the Conception, and the so-called grandfathering of boats under older boat safety regulations,” Democratic Rep. Julia Brownley of California told the Times.
“I am eager to receive NTSB’s final report on this incident and NTSB’s recommendations for updating federal laws in this area to ensure the safety of passengers and vessel crews.”
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.