USCG convenes board of investigation into Conception disaster

The US Coast Guard announced Wednesday that it had convened a formal Marine Board of Investigation (MBI) to investigate the loss of dive-boat Conception —a live-aboard vessel that caught fire and sank early on September 2nd with the loss of 34 lives – 33 passengers and one of the six crew members.

Assistant commandant for prevention policy, Rear Admiral Richard Timme made the announcement following media reports that federal agencies – including the FBI and the Coast Guard Investigative services – had executed search warrants at the Santa Barbara Harbour premises of the vessel’s owners, Truth Aquatics, removing boxes of evidence.

Salvage operations to raise the Conception were continuing this week, although Truth Aquatics asserted in a legal filing on September 6th 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, under the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851.

The National Transportation Safety Board is continuing its investigation of the incident. A difference between the NTSB investigation and a USCG formal MBI is that the latter can 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.

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 US Attorney’s Office. The USCG MBI 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 wilful 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.

The USCG issued a safety bulletin on September 10th, 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.