Families of the 34 victims of a California dive boat fire have sued the U.S. Coast Guard alleging the vessel was allowed to operate with faulty electrical and inadequate safety systems.

Built in 1981, the 75'x25' wooden hulled Conception was engulfed in flames and sank off Santa Cruz Island Sept. 2, 2019, killing 33 passengers and one crew. 

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) cited lax oversight by the owner, no roving watch as required by the Certificate of Inspection (COI), insufficient smoke detectors and poor escape routes and faulted the Coast Guard for not requiring safety management systems (SMS) on all U.S.-flag passenger vessels.

An annual inspection prior to the tragedy authorized the Conception to run “even though her electrical wiring and systems, her fire detection and suppression systems, and her passenger-accommodation escape hatch were in open and obvious violation” of the Coast Guard’s own directives, according to the federal suit filed two years after the tragedy.

The boat had an onboard electrical system powered by diesel generators that “did not fully and/or adequately comply” with established standards, the suit alleges. “For example, some electrical items in the bunkroom were not composed of UL Boat or Marine cable called for by such standards, but rather of cheap, everyday Romex wire of the kind one would buy at Home Depot.”

While the NTSB didn’t positively identify an ignition source, it said possible flashpoints included the vessel’s electrical distribution system and unattended batteries being charged. Divers’ electronic devices such as cell phones, underwater flashlights and tablets were charging overnight.      

The fire, which likely began in the aft portion of the salon, was “probably the greatest loss of life in the U.S. merchant marine for many decades,” said Morgan Turrell, deputy director NTSB’s office of marine safety. (The 790' containership El Faro sank in Hurricane Joaquin in 2015 with all 33 on board.)

“It is Coast Guard policy not to comment on pending litigation,” a spokesman said.

Last Thursday (9/2), the day after the suit was filed, the Coast Guard announced an underway safety initiative “to ensure continued regulatory compliance” while vessels are operating in California waters with passengers on board.

“Our intent with these safety compliance checks is to bridge gaps that were identified” following the Conception fire, 11th District commander Rear Adm. Brian Penoyer said in the bulletin. “We discovered that there are a number of operational requirements that are impossible to verify during a dockside annual inspection.”

The Conception’s captain, Jerry Boylan, is facing 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter. He has pleaded not guilty.



Dale DuPont has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1998. She has worked at daily and weekly newspapers in Texas, Maryland, and most recently as a business writer and editor at The Miami Herald, covering the cruise, marine and other industries. She and her husband once owned a weekly newspaper in Cooperstown, N.Y., across the alley from the Baseball Hall of Fame. A South Florida resident, she enjoys sailing on Biscayne Bay, except in hurricane season.

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