FBI boat
An FBI dive boat responds to investigate the Conception disaster in Santa Barbara County, as one of many agencies that has convened investigations into the fatal fire.  (Paul Goodwin photo)

The U.S. Coast Guard on Wednesday issued urgent safety recommendations in the aftermath of last week’s deadly Conception dive boat tragedy near Santa Cruz Island.

The bulletin recommends owners, operators and masters of passenger vessels review safety, firefighting and emergency plans for their vessels.

A Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation has been convened and will conduct a “thorough and comprehensive marine casualty investigation to determine the causal factors that contributed to this tragic incident,” the Coast Guard said.

That is the highest-level marine casualty investigation in the Coast Guard. 

The Santa Barbara-based Conception was anchored off Santa Cruz Island on Labor Day when it caught fire and later sank, killing 33 passengers and a crew member who were in the below-deck bunk area. Five crew members who were on deck survived.

Searchers have found 33 of the 34 victims, and divers continue looking this week. Salvage operations to recover the Conception wreckage is also underway. 

The Coast Guard recommends owners, operators and masters of passenger vessels immediately complete the following:

» Review the routes and conditions listed on the vessel’s certificate of inspection, including the number of passengers and overnight passengers permitted. Ensure crew members are aware of and clearly understand their obligations including any additional requirements detailed on the certificate of inspection.

» Review emergency duties and responsibilities with the crew and any other crew member in a safety sensitive position to ensure they comprehend and can comply with their obligations in an emergency to include the passenger safety orientation. Ensure emergency escapes are clearly identified, functional and remain clear of objects that may impede egress.

» Review the vessel log book and ensure records of crew training, emergency drills, and equipment maintenance are logged and current. It’s recommended the master complete log entries to demonstrate to the Coast Guard the vessel is operating in compliance with routes and conditions found on the certificate of inspection.

» Ensure all required fire and lifesaving equipment is onboard and operational.

» Reduce potential fire hazards and consider limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords.

» Review the overall condition of the passenger accommodation spaces and any other space that is readily available to passengers during the voyage for unsafe practices or other hazardous arrangements.

Four members of the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation will investigate all aspects of the incident, including pre-accident historical events, the regulatory compliance of the Conception, crew member duties and qualifications, weather conditions and reporting, safety and firefighting equipment, and Coast Guard oversight, according to a statement from the Coast Guard.

“The Coast Guard is deeply saddened by the tragedy,” Capt. Jason Neubauer, chair of the Marine Board of Investigation, said in a statement. “The Coast Guard will conduct a thorough and detailed investigation to determine potential causal factors associated with this tragedy.”

During the Coast Guard’s investigation, panel members aim to determine factors that contributed to the incident; 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’s evidence any Coast Guard personnel or any representative or employee of any other government agency or any other person caused or contributed to the casualty.

The investigation could take a year or longer to complete. It consists of public hearings, witness interviews and evidence collection and analysis. 

Separately, the Coast Guard Investigative Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is supporting a U.S. Department of Justice investigation and will work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the statement said.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at bholland@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.