Conception: liveaboard operators drag feet as manslaughter charge dropped

Conception fire
The Conception fire (Ventura County Fire Department)

On the third anniversary of the fire aboard the Conception liveaboard dive-boat in California that caused 34 deaths, the USA’s National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) noted the lack of progress on implementing the 10 safety recommendations it issued following its investigation – as well as recommendations it issued to the US Coast Guard as long ago as 2005. 

The 23m Conception was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, when it caught fire in the early morning of 2 September, 2019. The vessel burned to the waterline and sank less than 30m from shore. 

All the guests and one crew-member asleep in the single bunk-room below deck were trapped and died, though Captain Jerry Boylan and the other four crew escaped. Boylan has just had manslaughter charges against him dropped (see below).

Following the investigation, the NTSB issued seven new safety recommendations to the Coast Guard, which is charged with inspecting commercial vessels, as well as two recommendations to three associations of members operating “small” liveaboards, and one to Conception’s operator Truth Aquatics.

They cover issues such as installation of smoke detectors and provision of emergency escape routes, use of roving patrols at night and implementation of safety management systems.

But of the three liveaboard-operator associations, only the Passenger Vessel Association had met the recommendations, says the board, adding that the Sportfishing Association of California and the National Association of Charterboat Operators had failed to respond. 

‘Promise to the victims’

The NTSB also reiterated its 2005 recommendation for the Coast Guard to require all US-flagged passenger vessels to implement a safety management system. In the 17 years since, the board has investigated four incidents in which the lack of such a system remained an issue, including the Conception.

The Conception fire occurred 14 years after the Coast Guard, which is legally mandated to carry out all the new and reiterated NTSB recommendations, had been instructed to ensure that such systems were used. “Had an SMS been implemented, Truth Aquatics could have identified unsafe practices and fire risks on the Conception and taken corrective action before the tragedy occurred,” says the board.    

Conception plaque
Conception Memorial Plaque, Santa Barbara

“Three years ago, I made a promise to the victims’ families that I would vigorously work to ensure the safety recommendations we issued would be implemented,” commented NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy. “While I am encouraged by the progress that has been made, more work needs to be done. NTSB will continue to push until these recommendations are fully implemented.”

“We appreciate Congress addressing these safety issues in legislation, and for the co-operation and partnership of the Coast Guard, but this shouldn’t have taken an act of Congress to improve safety. Passenger-vessel owners and operators should act now to ensure no one else loses a loved one in another tragedy on our waterways.”

Charges dismissed

Meanwhile federal judge George H Wu in Los Angeles has dismissed the manslaughter charge laid against Conception’s captain Jerry Boylan. 

The decision hinged on the judge’s definition of the word “gross”, as he determined that the charge failed to allege gross negligence. After arguing in court that his decision was based on an “illogical” definition, the US Attorney’s Office is now seeking authorisation to lodge an appeal.

Also on Divernet: Stricter Liveaboard Rules Follow Fatal Conception Blaze, Conception Divers’ Families Sue Coast Guard, Conception-Inspired Law Passed In USA, Safety Board Blames Operator For Conception Fire, Conception Had Exit-Route Exemption


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John McDevitt
John McDevitt
1 year ago

The Conception was inspected by the Coast Guard earlier in 2019 and was deemed compliant.

The Conception was of combustible construction, restricted egress, with limited and ineffective use of early warning detection – and was still compliant. These conditions are not permitted in any similar overnight use and occupancy on land.

We have not experienced 34 fire deaths in a compliant structure anywhere in the United States in decades. The Coast Guard should stop ignoring the accepted and proven fire protection solutions used elswhere.

It has been over three years since this tragedy. Absent Coast Guard direction, the owners and operators of Sub T Vessels should consider other mainstream fire protection provisions that are available for similar a overnight occupancy here in the United States.

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