NTSB determines dive boat operator to blame for horrific fire and deaths

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2020/10/21/ntsb-determines-dive-boat-operator-to-blame-for-horrific-fire-and-deaths.html


This was horrific, preventable, and correctly decided by the court [in my decidedly not-a-lawyer opinion].


I just need to include my remembrance to give a context of my friends beyond being numbers. I’m doing OK as one can be in light of all this.

Just remember to tell your friends how much you love them and how much they matter to you.


Sounds like an awful thing.

It is a very arresting thing to have been on a boat that sinks or otherwise has a loss of life. A fish boat I worked on, and greatly enjoyed, sank about 3 months after I left the industry. The only survivor was the person doing my job (he was the only one who made it into the life raft). I had greatly enjoyed the company of the people who died, it was a complete shock. I’m still bothered by it regularly >20 years later.


Every liveaboard dive boat I’ve ever seen has a kinda crappy spaghetti pile (usually on deck) for recharging cameras/etc. I predict that these will start having smoke alarms and/or suppression systems set up.

On our trips, they noted that device charging in your room was forbidden unless you were present, and I totally understand where that could go bad quickly since there weren’t any surfaces beyond the bedding.

It guts me that this happened, but as the dive community is oriented toward learning and adapting, I hope it sets a new standard for managing devices and batteries.


Although it hasn’t been established for sure that recharging batteries were the cause, it does seem ironic and tragic that the safe place for recharging had no smoke alarm, and was also apparently the room you had to go through to exit the birthing area below. So it was really ill-suited as for a place to charge and store potentially flammable batteries, the same kind of chargers and flammable batteries that are allowed as carry-ons on airplanes, even though they’re almost impossible to put out. At least on a boat there’s the possibility of throwing the flaming battery overboard.

I’m still kind of surprised that that boat had room for 33 passengers. The bunks described by JLW must truly have been extremely small.


From the WaPo comments section:

Blair F

5 hours ago

I think what most people don’t realize is there are inherent risks of going to sea that can’t me mitigated. There are hundreds of vessels in this category in Southern California. The Coast Guard routinely goes through a largely bureaucratic inspection of these vessels just enough to complete their checklist. They know the points of egress are inadequate and inherently unsafe. They know that rules are routinely broken. They know many of the crews running these boats are sketchy (google Shogun overdose San Diego). There is little Coast Guard enforcement until there is an incident. I’ll venture to say that most boats (and crews) in this category are likely much less fit than the Conception. If you wanted to make these boats “safe” they would require non-economic retrofits and the party boat fish/dive industry would disappear or simply become cost prohibitive. So if you’re looking for a scapegoat here the Coast Guard needs to be on the list. I’m sure they realize that and it makes them very nervous.


Does the Coast Guard have the authority to require separate egress and other structural changes? I’ve never been clear on just who and how standards for boat and ship safety are made in the US.

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A deep dive brought me up against a hellish rabbit hole of USCG requirements tied to numerous rules and regulations (100+ page manuals) of other agencies. The answer may be buried in there. This popped up very early in my search: "… if there is reason to believe that the vessel’s safety equipment or material condition is substandard, a more in depth exam/inspection/drill should be conducted [by USCG]. Source: Marine Safety Manual (MSM), Volume II: Section G - OCS Activities . And that was just the tip of the manual-iceberg shown on https://www.dco.uscg.mil/OCSNCOE/Regulations-Policy-Guidance/


While I can’t disagree that whatever the Coast Guard’s requirements are for inspection they clearly failed here, this reads like a message from the owner of a dive company who is shitting bricks at the thought of the expense of having to install smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.

Someone basically threatening to take their ball and go home if forced to fix their deathtraps.

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I think the heart of the matter is that there is no hard and fast USCG inspection checklist that says “This vessel is not seaworthy unless there is verifiable evidence that xyz is in place and compliance is being measured/monitored through inspecting detailed ship inspection/fire-watch/safety remediation logs.” This is similar to the self-inspection logs that the dishwasher at a commercial kitchen is required to take readings, and attach chemical/temperature strips to the log books to verify and record proper temperature/sanitizing chemicals for the wash cycle. In other words, the laws are on the books but haven’t been distilled down operations manuals that read; “Dear USGC, here is how you inspect and verify compliance for…”

(Disclosure, I was a frequent diver aboard the Conception and have known Captain Jerry for a number of years.)

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I think I read something about having a night watchperson, not just smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. After reading a lot about this (and personally knowing people that have dived from/slept on this vessel), I would sure feel much more reassured knowing there was someone awake and responsible all night long checking on things.

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There was supposed to have been someone on watch. Not having them awake and alert is a big deal.

It seems notable that the comment starts “there are inherent risks of going to sea that can’t be mitigated”; then moves onto a list of risks that, one and all, could be mitigated if someone were motivated.

It gives the piece a rather dishonest air. If your thesis is “you don’t want to pay what safe dive boats would cost” just come out and say it, don’t try to pretend that risks are laws of nature.

I don’t doubt that there are some edge cases that even (the quite mature) discipline of naval architecture and risk management can’t quite deal with; but all the examples given in that comment are absolute bread-and-butter “we know how to do it right it just might be tedious and expensive” stuff.


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