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US Safety board: Lack of oversight blamed for deadly boat fire

06:50  21 october  2020
06:50  21 october  2020 Source:   msn.com

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The sinking of MV Conception occurred on September 2, 2019, when the 75-foot (23 m) dive boat caught fire and eventually sank off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, California, United States.

The National Transportation Safety Board will vote Tuesday on their investigation’s findings, the fire ’s probable cause and any recommendations that could potentially prevent further incidents. California boat crew members lacked emergency training, SAW 'Sparks' in outlet before

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Federal safety officials on Tuesday blamed the deaths of 34 people in a fire aboard a Southern California scuba dive boat directly on the vessel owner's failures to oversee its vessel and crew properly.

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. 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. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP, File) © Provided by Associated Press 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. 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. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP, File)

The National Transportation Safety Board unanimously ruled that the predawn fire aboard the Conception — the deadliest maritime disaster in the United States in decades — was the result of the ineffective oversight of the owner Truth Aquatics Inc., including a federal requirement for a roving night patrol.

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Fires on board ships can be prevented by finding and rectifying leakages of fuel oil, lubricating oil, and exhaust gases. In a ship’s generator room, the biggest danger of fire is from a leaky high pressure fuel pipe. Oil leaking from such pipe can fall on high temperature exhaust manifold or on indicator cocks

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The Sept. 2, 2019, tragedy killed 33 passengers and one crew member on a Labor Day weekend expedition near an island off Santa Barbara and prompted criminal and safety investigations. Court documents say charges against the Conception's captain, Jerry Boylan, are imminent.

While investigators were unable to determine what exactly sparked the fire, the five-member NTSB voted to label the inaction by Truth Aquatics as the deadly blaze's probable cause.

Board member Jennifer Homendy, who traveled to Santa Barbara in 2019 and toured a sister ship of the Conception, blasted Boylan and Truth Aquatics during the nearly four-hour hearing. She said the tragedy shouldn’t be called an accident.

“I hate the term accident in this case because, in my opinion, it is not an accident if you fail to operate your company safely,” Homendy said.

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The Coast Guard has issued a safety warning for commercial boat operators, urging them to limit the unsupervised charging of phones and other electronic devices, which could contribute to a deadly fire like the one sparked on a California dive boat over Labor Day weekend.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) launched a go team on September 3 to the accident to investigate. The on-scene portion of the investigation The boat was not at capacity, but according to the Los Angeles Times , the preliminary investigation identified the lack of a roaming night watch

John Hillsman, an attorney for relatives of five victims, said his clients are anxious to see that changes are made as a result of the tragedy.

He called some of Truth Aquatics’ operations, including the roving watch violation, “just jaw-dropping.”

Attorneys for Boylan and Truth Aquatics did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Homendy and the other board members also sharply criticized the Coast Guard on Tuesday, saying inadequate Coast Guard regulations contributed to the high death toll, such as a lack of a requirement for smoke detectors in all accommodation spaces and poor emergency escape arrangements. The board passed several recommendations to suggest to the Coast Guard.

The NTSB does not have enforcement powers and must submit its suggestions for safety enhancements to bodies like the Federal Aviation Administration or the Coast Guard, which have repeatedly rejected some of the board’s safety recommendations after other disasters.

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A preliminary investigation into the Conception boat fire has suggested serious safety deficiencies aboard the vessel, including the lack of a “roaming

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“The Coast Guard will carefully consider the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations through a deliberate process, which will include review by all subject matter experts and senior leaders responsible for implementing the potential regulatory changes,” Lt. Cmdr. Scott McBride said in a statement.

Investigators said that because the boat burned and sank, they couldn’t determine exactly what caused the fire. But they found that it began toward the back of the main deck salon area, where divers had plugged in phones, flashlights and other items with lithium ion batteries that can spread flames quickly.

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Investigators told the NTSB that because some of the recovered bodies were wearing shoes, they believe the victims were awake and trying to escape before being overcome with smoke. Coroner reports list smoke inhalation as the cause of death for all.

The absence of the required roving patrol, investigators said, delayed detection of the fire, allowing it to grow beyond the six-member crew's firefighting capabilities, hampering evacuation efforts and directly leading to the high number of fatalities.

Jeffrey Goodman, a lawyer representing family members of nine victims, said the board's conclusions confirmed that the disaster was “predictable and preventable.”

“Truth Aquatics routinely violated federal law by failing to have a roving night watch," Goodman said in a statement. "Sadly, this is just one among the litany of safety failures that led to a culture of deviance at Truth Aquatics.”

Coast Guard records show the Conception passed all recent safety inspections. Its records also show that since 1991, no owner, operator or charterer has been issued a citation or fine for failure to post a roving patrol. Because of that, NTSB investigators believe the Coast Guard does not have an effective way to verify that boats are operating with watchmen.

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Investigators said that because the boat burned and sank, they couldn’t determine what caused the fire. But they found that it began toward the back of the main deck salon area, where divers had plugged in phones, flashlights and other items with lithium ion batteries that can spread flames quickly.

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After the Conception 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.

“Some people may walk away and say, ‘Well, I wish I knew what the ignition source was,’ ” Homendy said. “But the key here is that the focus should be on conditions were present that allowed the fire to go undetected and to grow to a point where it prevented the evacuation.”

Five crew members, including Boylan, were asleep in the upper deck when the fire broke out around 3 a.m. in area above the only escape hatch to the bunkroom where the passengers and a single crewmember were sleeping. Boylan and other other four crewmen escaped by jumping into the water after making repeated attempts to try to save those below deck.

The size of the emergency hatch — 22 inches by 22 inches (56 centimeters) — met regulations, though safety board members criticized it as inadequate. Its location required passengers to climb to an upper bunk and then pull themselves through the opening.

“I don’t see how an average human with a life jacket on could get up through that hatch,” board member Michael E. Graham said, adding that it would be difficult to get up to and through the hatch “without being a contortionist.”

The families of 32 victims also have filed claims against the boat owners, Glen and Dana Fritzler and Truth Aquatics. In turn, the Fritzlers and the company have filed a legal claim to shield them from damages under a maritime law that limits liability for vessel owners. Court filings show they have offered to settle lawsuits with dozens of victims’ relatives.

___

Krisher reported from Detroit.

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