Rep. Salud Carbajal pressed Coast Guard and NTSB officials with questions on how to prevent another Conception tragedy at a hearing a couple months after the disaster; Carbajal's resulting Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act has a good chance to pass Congress and become law. | Credit: Courtesy

In its final investigative report on last year’s Conception tragedy, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended several measures already being considered by the U.S. Congress in a bill sponsored by Congressmember Salud Carbajal.

“Keep in mind,” the congressmember said on Monday, “the NTSB had issued a preliminary report outlining the issues they saw immediately. That allowed me to use it as a framework of legislation and the measures that needed to be taken to improve the safety of small vessels in the future.”

Complacency aboard the 39-year-old vessel led to the tragedy on Labor Day weekend in 2019, said Carbajal. The NTSB report issued last month largely blamed the lack of a roving night watch, which could have quickly spotted the fire that led to the deaths of 34 people below decks from smoke inhalation. The Conception had lacked a night watch for some time, both crew and former passengers said, and compliance with the rule was not something the Coast Guard could easily examine. “You can’t just leave it to chance that people are complying with being awake,” Carbajal said. “You need to put in a system, some kind of technology, for instance, that the night-watch person has to click every half hour or hour. At night, it’s important to do that.”

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The new regulations will apply to older ships, something that is not currently the case with maritime rules. “The new law takes away the grandfathered exception that exempted older vessels from having to abide by newer regulations,” Carbajal explained. “That had been allowed for Truth Aquatics and the Conception, but the Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act does away with those exemptions.”

Co-authored in the House by Congressmember Julia Brownley of Ventura and, in the Senate, by Senator Dianne Feinstein, the bill also requires interconnected fire detection equipment and two different means of escape. It further directs the Coast Guard to create safety rules around flammable items like lithium batteries, which are currently in a weaker guidance bulletin.

In a conversation with Robert Sumwalt, chair of the NTSB, Carbajal said he learned that it had been 10 years since the Coast Guard had first been directed to implement some of these changes. “They had been negligent in following up and timely implementing regulations from over 10 years ago,” Carbajal said. “My bill has specific language that the Coast Guard must take immediate interim measures to implement the new safety measures.” Sumwalt told him the Coast Guard’s commandant “had gotten the message on what a tragedy this was and that they need to be more proactive, diligent, and timely.”

The two versions of the bill in the House and Senate will likely be reconciled in December. “My hope is that my legislation will move forward as part of the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act],” Carbajal said, adding that it had bipartisan support. As a member of the Armed Services Committee, Carbajal said he hoped to be a conferee on the NDAA “and get this over the finish line.”

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