February 24, 2024

Within the early hours of Sept. 2, 2019, the Conception dive boat was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, 25 miles out to sea from Santa Barbara, when a hearth sparked and burned unnoticed. At about 3 a.m., the passengers aboard have been woke up to smoke pouring into the bunkroom and a raging hearth that trapped them beneath. 

Thirty-four folks died within the Conception blaze, the deadliest California maritime catastrophe in additional than 150 years. My husband and daughter have been two of them. All these deaths have been preventable because the inferno was the direct results of flagrantly lax security measures. The fatalities weren’t an accident. The fireplace was a tragedy ready to occur.

On this Sept. 6, 2019, picture, folks go to a rising memorial to the victims who died aboard the dive boat Conception as its sister boat Imaginative and prescient sits within the background, in Santa Barbara. 

To say that many lives have been shattered could be a gross understatement. Every a type of 34 had moms, fathers, youngsters, siblings and shut associates who have been devastated past what one can think about. I misplaced half my household — my life associate of 35 years and my 26-year-old daughter who had a lot to provide to the world as a wildlife biologist and budding marine ecologist. While you add the 32 others who have been devoted in myriad methods to creating the world higher, and the lives they touched, together with their households,  associates and neighborhood, the affect of this tragedy is so nice as to be overwhelming.

Within the four-plus years for the reason that hearth, advocates and lawmakers have made vital enhancements to security and applied new legal responsibility necessities. Nevertheless, an essential measure — the adoption of a transparent, documented system that ensures vessels are working safely has but to be required by the Coast Guard, regardless of greater than a decade of sturdy suggestions from the Nationwide Transportation Security Board.

On Nov. 6, 2023, a jury discovered former Capt. Jerry Nehl Boylan responsible of the federal felony offense of misconduct or neglect of a ship officer (the “seaman’s manslaughter” statute relationship again to 1864). The trial confirmed that if Boylan had assigned a roving patrol or evening watch or correctly educated his crew to combat fires, these 34 folks could be alive at this time. The fireplace would have been caught in time to be extinguished with the firefighting gear on board.

As an alternative, the passengers beneath deck have been the one ones utilizing a hearth extinguisher that evening, however to no avail. The captain jumped ship first, three minutes earlier than the salvaged passenger video confirmed the passengers nonetheless alive beneath within the bunkroom.

As predicted, the captain appealed the conviction. So the authorized course of is just not over and we, the households and associates of our beloved 34, should wait even longer till, possibly, justice is lastly served. 

FILE - A photo collage of the 34 victims of the Sept. 2, 2019 fire aboard the dive boat, Conception, at Santa Cruz Island, is held by a family member arriving at federal court in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. A federal jury on Monday, Nov. 6, found scuba dive boat captain Jerry Boylan was criminally negligent in the deaths of 34 people killed in a fire aboard the vessel in 2019, the deadliest maritime disaster in recent U.S. history. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes,File)
A photograph collage of the 34 victims of the Sept. 2, 2019, hearth aboard the dive boat Conception at Santa Cruz Island is held by a member of the family. The fireplace is the deadliest maritime catastrophe in current U.S. historical past. 

New guidelines not sufficient

As members of the family of the 34 victims, we began Advocacy34 to make sure that tragedies such because the Conception catastrophe by no means occur to different passengers and crew of small passenger vessels. With Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, and the late U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, we labored to strengthen all-too-lax U.S. Coast Guard security administration necessities by way of federal laws. The Elijah Commings Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2020 mandates that the Coast Guard perform the NTSB’s 21 suggestions from its Conception investigation. A number of the suggestions had been beforehand made by the company lengthy earlier than the dive-boat hearth.

‘The adoption of a transparent, documented system that ensures vessels are working safely — has but to be required by the Coast Guard, regardless of greater than a decade of sturdy suggestions from the Nationwide Transportation Security Board.’

In March 2022, the Coast Guard issued new guidelines to handle lots of the NTSB suggestions. These guidelines require elevated hearth detection and suppression methods, improved technique of escape, safer dealing with and storage of flammable objects (together with lithium batteries), further crew coaching and expertise to watch evening watches.

However these guidelines didn’t embrace mandating a security administration system with clear procedures, checklists and corrective measures to make sure that vessel crews are complying with laws, firm necessities and finest practices. Now, three years later, small passenger marine vessels nonetheless haven’t formally adopted such a security administration system. 

We’ve additionally seen success within the passage of The Small Passenger Vessel Legal responsibility Equity Act, authored by Carbajal and co-sponsored by Feinstein. That act modified the antiquated 1851 Limitation of Legal responsibility statute for small passenger boats that restricted funds to passengers to the worth of the boat wreckage. President Biden signed the invoice in December 2021, and it took impact the next March. 

FILE - The burned hull of the dive boat Conception is brought to the surface by a salvage team off Santa Cruz Island, Calif., on Sept. 12, 2019. Federal prosecutors are seeking justice for 34 people killed in a fire aboard the Conception in 2019. The trial against Captain Jerry Boylan begins Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023, in Los Angeles with jury selection. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via AP, File)
The burned hull of the dive boat Conception is dropped at the floor by a salvage staff off Santa Cruz Island, Calif., Sept. 12, 2019. 

The worth of a life

Earlier than the act handed, the Conception’s proprietor, Glen Fritzler of Reality Aquatics, had hid behind the protections of the Nineteenth-century legislation. To take action, he needed to file authorized notices addressed to those that had died within the dive boat hearth. The authorized technique allowed him to restrict legal responsibility to the worth of the vessel, post-wreck, which was principally $0.

Think about the way it felt to obtain such a authorized discover a number of days after studying your family members died. I acquired two such claims, addressed to my daughter and husband, that explicitly said their lives had no worth as a result of the ship they have been on had no worth. 

Underneath the Legal responsibility Equity Act, the ship homeowners will likely be held financially answerable for all lives misplaced aboard their vessels. It not issues what the vessel is price. Sadly, nonetheless, this act doesn’t apply retroactively. 

Our work as Advocacy34 to make sure that comparable devastation doesn’t happen once more received’t deliver again our family members. Nevertheless, it has helped us navigate the ache from shedding them in a preventable tragedy. Not ought to anybody board a vessel questioning if the authorized security necessities are being met.

We don’t need anybody to must undergo what we’ve been by way of. Tragedies that happen resulting from security negligence should not accidents. They’re typically predictable and preventable, and all of us have a task to play to stop such horrible losses. 

Vicki Moore is a Los Altos resident. Her profession has been dedicated to land conservation, as former coverage director of Greenbelt Alliance, and environmental literacy, as founding father of Dwelling Classroom.