Last week, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a safety bulletin after The Conception, a California dive boat, caught on fire just off the coast of Santa Cruz Island. The blaze took the lives of 34 people, all of whom were trapped in the ship’s sleeping quarters below deck.
An initial investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed that the crew of The Conception was sleeping at the time of the accident. No crew members were keeping watch over the boat as required by law. However, some speculation has indicated that the fire broke out in the ship’s galley, a location where crew members and passengers charged devices using lithium-ion batteries. Amid this speculation, the Coast Guard has issued a safety bulletin warning of the use of these batteries and extension chords on boats.
About the Safety Bulletin
The safety bulletin recommends that owners ensure their vessels have all required firefighting and safety equipment. It also encourages vessel owners to make sure emergency escape hatches are accessible, and that crew members understand their roles during an emergency.
Notably, the bulletin advises that boat owners should “reduce potential fire hazards and consider limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords.”
In a comment to USA Today, a former managing director of the NTSB said, “The intensity of the fire surprised people,” they said. "If it was being fed by lithium batteries, that might explain it."
Notably, the Coast Guard does not wait for the results of an investigation to release safety bulletins. So, the safety bulletin is a reaction to a strong suspicion of danger, rather than a confirmation of the accident's cause.
“In some instances, our marine casualty boards identify pressing safety issues related to vessel stability, the engine room or lifesaving and firefighting equipment,” commented Capt. Jason Neubauer, chair of the Marine Board of Investigation. “In those instances, we issue safety alerts or bulletins."
Investigators Hope The Conception’s Wreckage Will Provide Answers
Last week, salvors raised The Conception after a week of attempts which were delayed by poor weather. Investigators hope that the charred remains of the dive boat will help them determined what caused the accident, which is now the deadliest in recent California history. In a comment to the Los Angeles Times, the vessel’s designer said that he believed the fire began in the belly of the boat and involved lithium-ion battery chargers.
Shortly after the accident, the owners of The Conception filed a claim using the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, an action which they hope will absolve them of liability for the accident. The 150-year-old law has outlived the shipping era it came from and is now a way for negligent vessel operators to escape accountability.