LOS ANGELES _ The Conception dive boat, on which 34 people died in a Labor Day fire, had been exempted by the U.S. Coast Guard from stricter safety rules designed to make it easier for passengers to escape, documents and interviews by the Los Angeles Times show.

The Conception was one of about 325 small passenger vessels built before 1996 and given special exemptions from safety standards that the Coast Guard imposed on new vessels, some of which required larger escape hatches and illuminated exit signs, records show.

The rules require vessels to have an escape hatch of at least 32 inches wide and exit signs that are illuminated. The Conception, built in 1981, had an escape hatch that was only 24 inches wide, according to several federal regulators who requested anonymity in order to speak on the matter. It also did not have illuminated exit signs.

It’s unclear whether such measures would have made a difference on the Conception, on which passengers on a weekend diving expedition were trapped in the hull during an early morning fire and unable to escape. Crew members on the deck said they were unable to reach the passengers because of intense flames.

But federal officials probing the worst maritime disaster in modern California history immediately zeroed in about the functionality of the two exits in the area where passengers slept in stacked bunks beneath the waterline. National Transportation Safety Board investigator Jennifer Homendy told the Times in September that she was “taken aback” by the small size of the emergency escape hatches, adding that she thought it would be difficult for passengers to exit during an emergency in the dark.

In the aftermath of the fire, the Coast Guard has stepped up inspections of similar boats across the country. Several boat owners have said that among the issues inspectors have raised is the size of escape hatches, fire protection systems and crew training in emergencies.

The Coast Guard is already under scrutiny in the wake of the Conception fire. Earlier this month, the Times reported that the Coast Guard had often ignored NTSB safety recommendations to improve fire-safety measures for nearly 20 years.

The safety exemptions the Conception and other boats received in the 1990s are raising new questions.

“I am deeply concerned about the fire and sinking of the Conception, and the so-called grandfathering of boats under older boat safety regulations,” U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., told the Times.

“I am eager to receive NTSB’s final report on this incident and NTSB’s recommendations for updating federal laws in this area to ensure the safety of passengers and vessel crews.”

Kyle McAvoy, a marine safety expert at Robson Forensic and former Coast Guard chief of the Office of Commercial Vessel Compliance Policy, said the grandfathering of older vessels often happens when meeting new regulations is economically unfeasible and impractical.

When adopting changes to the Subchapter T regulations in the 1990s, McAvoy said the Coast Guard wanted to ensure improvements and safety for new boats, but also had to address what to do with existing vessels. Before the new standards were adopted, the Coast Guard sought public comment and conducted feasibility studies.

Older vessels “may not be able to change what they have,” McAvoy, who retired as a Coast Guard captain in 2016, said of older boats.

The Coast Guard has the authority to make immediate safety changes in the wake of incidents such as the deadly Conception fire, McAvoy said.

He said he is not surprised inspectors are already scouring vessels across the country and he noted that owners can always go beyond the minimum standards to ensure passenger safety, adding: “The Coast Guard regulations are the floor, not the ceiling.”

The original regulations, written in the late 1950s, required two means of escape exits, but did not specify minimum dimensions or say where the exits needed to be located.

Currently, the Subchapter T regulations govern about 5,000 vessels on U.S. waterways. Of those, about 325 still fall under the original rules.

The Coast Guard had made numerous minor revisions to the original regulations throughout the years, but they were not sufficient to keep abreast of the changes affecting the small passenger vessel fleet since the 1960s, according to Coast Guard records.

Prior to the Coast Guard updating regulations in 1996, the last major revision occurred in 1963, records show.

The reasons for updates included vessels getting larger and not keeping up with fire-prevention technologies. Another reason included significant casualties on waterways, including 87 fire deaths between 1981 and 1986, federal records show.

Among the incidents was a fire aboard a vessel on the Mississippi River that claimed three lives. The Coast Guard determined that a $200 vapor detector would have prevented the deaths. Additionally, 32% of all fires occurred on wood-hulled vessels. And during that period, 57% of all fires started in the machinery spaces aboard the boats.

After multiple casualty investigations, the NTSB and Coast Guard each agreed that new rules were needed “to prevent casualties or alleviate damages and injuries from future casualties,” Coast Guard records show. “The Coast Guard agrees with many of the investigation recommendations that have been made.”

The 1996 revision required a larger “means of escape” for passengers to flee during an emergency. It also said the two “means of escape must be widely separated and, if possible, at opposite ends or sides of the space to minimize the possibility of one incident blocking both escapes.”

The rule also said the means of escape must allow for the “easy movement of persons when wearing life jackets. There must be no protrusions in means of escape that could cause injury, ensnare clothing or damage life jackets.”

Recommended for you