U.S. Coast Guard Warns of Fire Risk From Charging Batteries on Boats

September 22, 2019 Updated: September 22, 2019

As a thorough investigation into the cause of the Conception boat fire off Santa Cruz Island continues, many speculate that the charging of personal electronics may have played an operative role in sparking the worst maritime disaster in modern California history.

While the source of the Labor Day dive boat inferno has yet to be determined, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a Safety Information Bulletin on Sept. 10 urging owners, operators, and masters of passenger vessels to, among other precautions, “reduce potential fire hazards and consider limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords.”

Two days after the Coast Guard issued this warning, the National Transportation Safety Board released a report wherein initial interviews with three of the surviving crew members aboard the Conception revealed that no mechanical or electrical issues were reported.

In the time since the wood and fiberglass boat was built in 1981, the number of electronic devices divers brought on board has increased exponentially. It’s possible that the vessel was ill-equipped to accommodate the charging of a large number of devices.

The Federal Aviation Administration has logged (pdf) 265 lithium battery-related incidents involving smoke, fire, extreme heat, or explosions between March 20, 1991 and August 1, 2019.

The fact that no electrical issues had been identified by Conception crew members, along with the fact that the boat had passed its two most recent inspections, points to the possibility that an alternative cause of the fire could be related to lithium battery-charged electronics.

If lithium-ion batteries were indeed the cause of the boat fire, which claimed the lives of 34 individuals ranging in age from 16 to 62, it would be a rare occurrence.

“There is no recent memory of any boat fires directly attributed to lithium ion batteries,” Coast Guard spokeswoman LT Amy Midgett told The Epoch Times after checking with the agency’s investigations office. “However, without a detailed search, I am unable to confirm.”

Peter Goelz, a former NTSB managing director, told USA TODAY that “the intensity of the fire surprised people. If it was being fed by lithium batteries, that might explain it.”

There are several other factors that are being considered as well, including the possibility of loose, frayed, or erroneously-connected wiring behind the boat’s walls.

According to John McDevitt, a former assistant fire chief and chairman of the National Fire Protection Association, the oceanic climate could have compounded any electrical problems.

“The environment and salty air plays havoc with the electrical systems,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Electricity is challenging on a boat. With all those charging stations running through an old circuit, it is probably electrical.”

A former operator of the Conception told the newspaper that the electronics the divers likely brought onboard were often more powerful than your average smartphone. In his experience, divers “use a lot of cameras — a large number of daisy chains of electronics — and sometimes it seems like too much into one outlet. We are talking top-of-the-line cameras one after another, not cellphones. We are talking about big batteries.”

In the wake of speculation surrounding the fire, crew member Ryan Sims filed a lawsuit against Truth Aquatics, the owner of the boat, and Worldwide Diving Adventures, the dive charter company.

The raging fire forced Sims to jump into the water from the top deck, resulting in three fractures in his leg and other injuries that necessitated urgent medical attention. His filing alleges, among various claims, that the vessel was not properly maintained and was operated under dangerous conditions. Sims also asserts that Truth Aquatics failed to properly train its employees, and the boat did not have appropriate evacuation measures.

Federal investigators with the FBI, ATF, and the Coast Guard executed search warrants at Truth Aquatics on Sept. 8. After the search, they seized boxes of evidence that included blueprints, safety logs, and maintenance records. Investigators also performed a search of the company’s two other commercial boats, Truth and Vision.

NTSB has reported in its initial findings that all crew members were asleep at the time of the Conception fire. If this assertion can be proven, crew members and Truth Aquatics could face prosecution for violating 18 USC section 1115 of the law, which requires a roving patrol of the vessel.

However, Douglas Schwartz, the attorney for Truth Aquatics, has raised questions about the allegation that all crew members were asleep.

“We do have witness testimony that seems to contradict the notion that the entire crew was asleep,” he said in a statement obtained by USA TODAY. “We do know that one crew member checked on and around the galley area at around 2:30 a.m., approximately 30 minutes before the fire broke out.”

On Sept. 12, the remains of the boat were successfully recovered from the ocean floor of Platts Harbor and transferred to the Port Hueneme naval facility, where an ATF national incident team of fire experts are inspecting the electrical, fuel, and power systems on the boat.

The families of the victims who perished on the boat have been encouraged to contact the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office in order to claim compensation related to funeral costs and counseling.

“From day one our office has been engaged in this endeavor,” District Attorney Joyce E. Dudley said in a statement obtained by VC Star. “From the early morning hours of Sept. 3, 2019, our office’s focus has been on the fire victims and their loved ones.”

She urged the victim’s families to contact her office by calling (805) 568-2400 or toll free (855) 840-3242.

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