Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

The chain of events that led to the tragic deaths of a young crewmember and all 33 passengers aboard the Conception dive boat in 2019 are directly addressed in new rules from the Coast Guard, which are proposed to take effect March 28, 2022.

The 33 divers were on a Labor Day weekend trip to the Channel Islands, having chartered the Conception out of Santa Barbara Harbor’s Truth Aquatics. Unknown to them, and revealed in subsequent investigations, training records were lacking to show the crew had practiced emergency response or fire suppression, fire or smoke detectors were not interconnected throughout the ship, the emergency escape hatch was fatally inadequate, the ship’s electrical wiring was a snake’s nest of power-strip cords, and, crucially, the captain did not set an all-night watch.

In the case of the Conception and its load of batteries recharging after a night dive, the bunkroom belowdecks became a deathtrap around 3 a.m. on September 2, 2019. What started the fire that broke out on the main deck remains undetermined, but a National Transportation and Safety Board report released in 2020 outlined the deficiencies that led to the deaths of 34 people. Captain Jerry Boylan and four crewmembers escaped by jumping overboard. In congressional hearings, the Coast Guard was roundly chastised for taking too long to implement safety rules for this and other shipboard disasters.

The proposed rules, listed in the Federal Register for December 27, 2021, require small overnight passenger vessels to be equipped with systems or training programs to address the deficiencies noted by the NTSB, as well as to perform emergency escape drills with passengers from their beds, develop safe handling procedures for hazardous items like rechargeable batteries, and add a monitoring device to ensure the watch is awake at night.

Importantly, the new rules will be retroactive for existing ships. Earlier safety updates applied only to vessels built after March 11, 1996; the Conception was built in 1981. The implementation of the rules is staggered based on their complexity. For instance, two independent escapes must be built by December 27, 2023, new fire protection gear is to be installed within one year, but most changes must occur by this March. The comment period for the proposed rules runs through June 27.

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