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October 2021    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 36, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Coast Guard Sued by 34 Families

legal action from The Conception dive boat disaster victims

from the October, 2021 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

memorial for the Conception disaster victims
The permanent memorial at the Conception dive boat's home dock in Santa Barbara Harbor

Family members of the 34 people who died in the Conception dive boat fire off the Channel Islands in September 2019 are suing the U.S. Coast Guard, alleging it failed to enforce regulations and allowed the vessel to operate with substandard electrical and safety systems that led to the deaths.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has previously cited the failure by Conception Captain Jerry Boylan and the Conception's owner, Truth Aquatics, to comply with Coast Guard requirements to run a roving watch person whenever passengers were sleeping below deck, as well as other safety procedures. Boylan is facing 34 counts of seaman's manslaughter for his failure to have a required roving watch person who might have detected the fire sooner, possibly in time to save the 34 who were sleeping below decks. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

"Had the Coast Guard properly inspected the Conception, it never would have been certified."

But the wrongful-death lawsuit portrays the Coast Guard as the enabler that helped send the 33 passengers and one crew member to their deaths off Santa Cruz Island with failed oversight.

Less than a year before the fire, the Coast Guard certified the boat to carry 40 passengers overnight "even though her electrical wiring systems, her fire detection and suppression systems, and passenger accommodation escape hatch were in open and obvious violation of federal regulations," according to the lawsuit.

After the fire, the Coast Guard inspected the Conception's sister vessel, the Vision, also owned by Truth Aquatics, and "discovered numerous glaring deficiencies" in its wiring and electrical systems, fire detection and suppression systems, and its escape hatch, according to the suit.

"Had the Coast Guard properly inspected the Conception, it never would have been certified, never set sail, and these 34 victims would not have lost their lives," said Jeffrey P. Goodman, who represents several of the families. "The time has come for the Coast Guard to be held accountable for its failures to protect those victims and prevent future maritime disasters on America's waterways."

The lawsuit notes that an examination of the Vision revealed homemade repairs done with the kind of wiring available at Home Depot and not of the quality used in maritime vessels. The boat's electrical system was so stressed that it could not run when the galley stove was on.

The suit notes that in 2013, the Coast Guard started publishing safety alerts about the danger of circuit overloads and shipboard fires caused by power strips and rechargeable devices aboard vessels.

The suit alleges the Coast Guard knew or should have known that Truth Aquatics added "undocumented and ill-designed electrical outlets throughout the vessel for the purpose of battery charging" and encouraged passengers and crew to charge video cameras, smartphones, underwater scooter power packs, and other lithium-ion battery equipment.

Eleven months before the deadly Conception fire, those on a dive trip on the Vision saw a battery being charged spark flames; the flames were smothered with a dry chemical fire extinguisher and the battery tossed in a bucket.

The Conception consisted of three decks: the pilot house and crew quarters on top; a middle deck, where the fire ignited; and sleeping quarters in the belly of the vessel. The NTSB determined the fire began in the middle deck salon, where lithium-ion batteries were being charged. But the agency could not say whether it was the source that ignited the blaze.

Those sleeping below deck were trapped beneath the fire. There were signs that some were awake with their shoes on before they were killed by smoke inhalation.

The families are already suing Truth Aquatics for wrongful death and negligence in the operation of the Conception.

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times and was written by Richard Winton. We have shortened it and take all responsibility for editorial errors.

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