Families of 34 dead in Conception dive boat disaster sue Coast Guard


On the first anniversary of the Conception Boat fire in 2019, Susan Tibbles walks past a memorial to the 34 who died in Santa Barbara, Calif. (Al Seib, The Los Angeles Times / TNS)

LOS ANGELES (Tribune News Service) – Family members of the 34 people who died in the Conception dive boat fire off the Channel Islands in 2019 are suing the US Coast Guard, alleging they have failed enforced regulations and allowed the vessel to operate with substandard electrical equipment. and the security systems that led to the deaths.

The complaint was filed Wednesday on the eve of the second anniversary of the blaze, the worst maritime disaster in modern California history.

It also comes as the ship’s captain Jerry Boylan faces 34 counts of manslaughter by a sailor for his inability to have a required traveling warden who could have detected the fire earlier, may -be in time to save the 33 passengers and a crew member. who slept below deck during the Labor Day weekend diving excursion.

The National Transportation Safety Board has previously cited the failure of Boylan and the owner of the Conception, Truth Aquatics, to comply with Coast Guard requirements that he lead a traveling warden whenever passengers slept below deck, as well. than other security procedures. Boylan has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

But the wrongful death lawsuit filed in federal court in Los Angeles on Wednesday describes the Coast Guard as the catalyst that helped send the 34 people to death at Platts Harbor off Santa Cruz Island with failing surveillance. .

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

In the aftermath of the fire, the Coast Guard inspected Conception’s sister ship, the Vision, and “discovered many glaring deficiencies” in its wiring and electrical systems, fire detection and extinguishing systems. and its escape hatch, depending on the combination. The Vision is similar in construction and design to the Conception and was also owned by Truth Aquatics.

“If the Coast Guard had properly inspected the Conception, it would never have been certified, would never have set sail, and those 34 victims would not have lost their lives,” said Jeffrey P. Goodman, who represents several families and speaks on behalf of the legal team. .

“Unfortunately, certification of non-compliant vessels is common in the Coast Guard,” he added. “The time has come for the Coast Guard to be held accountable for its failure to protect these victims and prevent future maritime disasters on US waterways.”

Coast Guard officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the lawsuit.

Goodman said that while most people are familiar with the men and women who risk their lives on critical safety missions, the Coast Guard is also a regulatory body responsible for properly certified vessels.

“The Coast Guard has failed in this mission for decades by failing to enforce certification requirements and regularly authorizing non-compliant and dangerous vessels on the water,” he said.

The lawsuit notes that an examination of the Vision revealed home repairs made with the type of wiring available at Home Depot and not of the quality used in marine vessels. There was so much strain on the boat’s electrical system that it could not function when the kitchen stove was on.

The lawsuit notes that in 2013, the Coast Guard began issuing navigation and vessel inspection circulars and safety alerts about the danger of circuit overloads and onboard fires caused by power strips and rechargeable devices on board ships.

The lawsuit alleges that the Coast Guard knew or should have known that Truth Aquatics added “undocumented and poorly designed electrical outlets throughout the vessel for the purpose of charging the battery” and encouraged passengers and crew to recharge batteries. video cameras, smartphones, underwater scooter power supplies and other lithium-ion battery equipment.

Eleven months before the fatal Conception Blaze, those on a diving trip on the Vision saw a battery being charged, which was then smothered with a dry chemical extinguisher and thrown into a bucket.

The Conception consisted of three decks: the wheelhouse and crew quarters at the top; an intermediate bridge, where the fire is lit; and dormitories in the belly of the ship. The NTSB determined that the fire started at the rear of the middle deck saloon, where the lithium-ion batteries were being charged. But the agency could not say if it was the source that started the fire.

Those who slept under the bridge were trapped under fire. There were signs that some were awake with their shoes on before being killed by smoke inhalation. The NTSB has criticized Truth Aquatics for running a ship with little or no oversight, which Truth Aquatics lawyers strongly deny.

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

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