The boat was reportedly grandfathered in to more lax rules, as it was built before the 1996 updates

By Rachel DeSantis
November 26, 2019 11:15 AM
Conception on fire
| Credit: AP/Shutterstock

The California diving boat that killed 34 people when it burst into flames on Labor Day was grandfathered in to an exemption from a series of safety regulations meant to allow for easier escape, according to a new report from the Los Angeles Times.

The 75-foot Conception was built in 1981, and featured an escape hatch 24 inches wide and a lack of any illuminated exit signs.

It was one of about 325 small passenger vessels built before 1996, which meant it was exempt from updated Coast Guard safety standards, the Times reported. Those standards require escape hatches to be at least 32 inches wide, and for vessels to have illuminated exit signs.

“We have always followed Coast Guard regulations and whatever is required,” Truth Aquatics — which operated the Conception — owner Glen Fritzler told the Times. “Our past inspections reflect our commitment.”

Even so, the outlet previously reported that the Coast Guard had “often ignored” recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board to improve fire-safety measures over the last two decades.

The Times noted that it remains unclear whether these fixes would have helped prevent the deaths of the 33 passengers and one crew member on board, all of whom died of smoke inhalation.

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Meanwhile, investigators were “taken aback” by the small size of the ship’s emergency hatch, according to a previous Times report.

“It surprised me how small it was and how difficult it was to access,” said Jennifer Homendy, who is overseeing the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation, adding that she and the investigators also had difficulty finding a light switch.

The Conception had passed its previous inspections, U.S. Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester said at a press conference shortly after the fire.

At the same press conference, Santa Barbara Sheriff-Coroner Bill Brown said that the vessel had a stairwell to get up and down the main entryway, as well as an escape hatch — and both appeared to have been blocked by fire.

Credit: Ringo H W Chiu/AP/Shutterstock

The National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report in September that found the Conception had violated a roving night watch requirement, as all six of its crew members were sleeping when the fire broke out.

Five who were asleep behind the wheelhouse on the boat’s uppermost sun deck survived, while the one crew member sleeping alongside the passengers in the bunkroom on the lower deck did not.

One of the surviving crew members said he was awakened by a noise and saw a fire at the back of the boat when he got up to investigate, the report said.

He alerted the other crew members, and though they made attempts to reach the people below, they were unable to because of the heat, flames and smoke, according to the NTSB.