USCG Marine Board of Investigation to probe deadly dive boat fire

Written by Nick Blenkey
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KPIX CBS TV footage shows ferocity of fire that cost 34 lives

The Coast Guard assistant commandant for prevention policy, Rear Adm. Richard Timme, announced Wednesday that he has convened a formal Marine Board of Investigation (MBI) to investigate the loss of the small passenger vessel Conception —the live-aboard dive boat that caught fire and sank in the early morning hours of Sept. 2, 2019 with the loss of 34 lives.

The announcement of the MBI follows media reports that on Sunday federal agencies — including the FBI and the Coast Guard Investigative services had executed search warrants at the Santa Barbara Harbor premises of of the vessel’s owners, Truth Aquatics, and had removed boxes of evidence.

Salvage operations to raise the sunken dive boat remained ongoing today, despite Truth Aquatics having asserted in a legal filing on September 6 that the wreck and wreckage of the Conception had been recovered and transported via barge to Ventura Country. That filing was made by Truth Aquatics and its owners, the Fritzler family in a move to seek exemption from liability under the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, and head off actions by claimants under state law.

Meantime, the National Transportation Safety Board is continuing its investigation of the incident.

MBI MAY RECOMMEND ENFORCEMENT ACTIONS

A major difference between the NTSB investigation and a USCG
formal Marine Board of Investigation is that an MBI may make recommendations for enforcement actions if any violations or law or regulation are found.

The marine board consists of four members who will investigate all aspects of the casualty including, but not limited to, the pre-accident historical events, the regulatory compliance of the Conception, crewmember duties and qualifications, weather conditions and reporting, safety and firefighting equipment, and Coast Guard oversight.

Separately, the Coast Guard Investigative Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are supporting a Department of Justice investigation and will work in close coordination with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation will coordinate directly with DOJ before seeking additional information from a witness, seeking new evidence or holding public hearings.

During the course of the MBI, panel members must decide:

  • The factors that contributed to the accident;
  • Whether there is evidence that any act of misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence or willful violation of the law on the part of any licensed or certificated person contributed to the casualty; and
  • Whether there is evidence that any Coast Guard personnel or any representative or employee of any other government agency or any other person caused or contributed to the casualty.

A MBI is a lengthy and detailed process that may take a year or longer to complete. It consists of witness interviews, public hearings, and evidence collection and analysis. However, the Coast Guard does not have to wait for the Board’s final report to implement urgent and necessary safety actions.

“In some instances, our marine casualty boards identify pressing safety issues related to vessel stability, the engine room, or lifesaving and firefighting equipment,” said Neubauer. “In those instances, we issue safety alerts or bulletins to ensure a wide spread dissemination of the most recent safety guidance. All of our safety notices and lessons learned from investigations are also publicly available online through our Coast Guard Office of Investigations and Casualty Analysis website.”

SAFETY BULLETIN

The Coast Guard issued just such a safety bulletin September 10, urging mariners to:

  • Review conditions listed on the vessel’s Certificate of Inspection;
  • Review crew emergency duties and responsibilities and ensure escapes are clearly identified;
  • Review the vessel log book and ensure records of crew training and emergency drills;
  • Ensure all required firefighting and lifesaving equipment is onboard and operational; and
  • Review the overall condition of areas accessibly by passengers, including accommodations.

The safety bulletin is available online.

An e-mail has been set up for witnesses or anyone else with information about the vessel or the marine casualty. This e-mail will be checked regularly. The e-mail address is: [email protected]

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