LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) – The families of 34 people who died a dive boat fire off the coast of Santa Cruz Island exactly two years ago have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Coast Guard.
The federal lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Wednesday alleges the Coast Guard failed to enforce regulations and allowed the vessel to operate with electrical and safety problems that resulted in the deaths.
In the early morning hours of Sept. 2, 2019, a blaze broke out aboard the 75-foot charter boat “Conception” as it was anchored about 20 yards of Santa Cruz Island and 22 miles southwest of Santa Barbara.
A total of 39 people were aboard, included six crew members and 33 passengers. Five crew members survived. The sixth crew member and all 33 passengers perished.
The new lawsuit alleges that less than a year before the disaster, the Coast Guard certified the boat to carry 40 passengers overnight despite poor wiring and other issues aboard the Conception.
In October of 2020, National Transportation Safety Board investigators announced that they were unable to determine what sparked the fire. They found that it began toward the back of the main deck salon area, where divers had plugged in phones, flashlights and other items with lithium ion batteries that can spread flames quickly.
Investigators also said the lack of a required roving night watchman delayed the detection of the fire.
In December of last year, the captain of the boat, 67-year-old Jerry Nehl Boylan, was indicted by a federal grand jury on 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter. He has plead not guilty to the charges.
In response to the fire, the Coast Guard issued new emergency safety requirements for boaters. They include recommending that boaters limit the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and the use of power strips and extension cords.
The boat was owned by Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics. Conception was built in Long Beach and first launched in 1981. Conception had a maximum capacity of 46 people. The charter was booked by a group called Worldwide Diving Adventures. Truth Aquatics had been running charters since 1974. It suspended operations about a month after the fire.
A plaque with the names of the victims was unveiled at Santa Barbara Harbor on the one year anniversary of the fire.
The fire prompted several criminal and safety investigations. Victims’ families have also filed claims against the boat owners, Glen and Dana Fritzler and Truth Aquatics.
The company, in turn, filed a legal claim to shield them from damages under a maritime law that limits liability for vessel owners.
The families’ suits allege that the 41-year-old Conception was in blatant violation of numerous Coast Guard regulations, including failing to maintain an overnight “roving” safety watch and failure to provide a safe means for storing and charging lithium-ion batteries, and that the below-decks passenger accommodations lacked emergency exits.
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