Maritime Casualty News October 2020

NTSB: Conception fire highlights need for safety improvements

The National Transportation Safety Board is urging the U.S. Coast Guard to establish new safety measures based on the NTSB’s investigation into the Conception dive boat fire that left 34 people dead. 

The fire aboard the 75-foot vessel started at about 0300 on Sept. 2, 2019 while the boat was anchored near Santa Cruz Island off Santa Barbara, Calif. The NTSB’s five-member board met virtually on Oct. 20 to discuss investigation findings, suggest regulatory changes and issue the probable cause.

A synopsis released after the meeting shows the NTSB was unable to determine the exact origin, time or cause of the fire, although Conception’s electronics system or batteries being recharged were leading possibilities. Thirty-three passengers and one crewmember sleeping below deck succumbed to smoke inhalation. 

The NTSB said the lack of a night watch was a primary factor in the tragedy. Earlier detection, the agency noted, likely would have allowed crew to fight the flames and potentially warn people sleeping below deck. The NTSB attributed these failings to vessel operator Truth Aquatics of Santa Barbara. 

The agency is urging new passenger vessel regulations that would mandate interconnected smoke alarms in accommodation spaces, improvements for egress that allow people to escape to different parts of a vessel, and new inspection protocols to ensure night watch requirements are being followed. 

For more details on the NTSB’s findings, visit The agency expects to release a final report in the next few weeks. The Coast Guard is conducting a separate ongoing investigation.


‘Incomplete’ safety procedures cited in Illinois barge explosion

The barge IB1940 exploded while docked in the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal on the morning of Nov. 4, 2019. No one was injured and there was no pollution, but the barge valued at $1.75 million was completely destroyed. 

The explosion happened while the 200-foot barge was tied up at the Illinois Marine Towing Heritage Slip near Lamont, Ill. The barge had discharged its load of acetone and crews were preparing to clean residual product from the vessel, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

“The NTSB’s investigation revealed that while Illinois Marine Towing had written guidance to workers for tasks related to barge-cleaning operations before the explosion, the documents did not include all procedures identified in the facility operations manual, specifically guidance for bonding air movers to the barge,” the agency said.

As a result, the unbonded air mover was operated in a cargo tank with residual acetone, causing a static electrical discharge that ignited flammable vapors in the tank, the NTSB determined.

Illinois Marine has updated its protocols when “strip-and-blow” cleaning liquid tank barges. The 13-page document contains instructions for stripping tanks, verifying all residual product has been removed, inspecting air movers before leaving the shop, and ensuring the bonding strap is attached and tested for electrical continuity between the air mover horn and the bonding clamp.


Containership leaks fuel at New Jersey terminal

Authorities discovered fuel leaking from a Liberia-flagged containership while it was docked at the Global Container Terminals facility in Bayonne, N.J., on Sept. 28. 

An unknown amount of fuel discharged from a “small crack” in YM Mandate’s hull, according to the Coast Guard. The affected tank on the 6,500-TEU ship can hold just over 462,000 gallons. 

The crew pumped fuel to other tanks to stanch the leak, and response teams placed boom around the ship to contain the spill. Absorbent pads and skimmers removed product from around the vessel, the Coast Guard said. 

The Coast Guard established a unified command in response to the leak that included the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and Gallagher Marine Systems. YM Mandate is operated by Yang Ming Marine Transport Corp. of Taiwan.

“The response was quick and efficient thanks to the strong coordination of all agencies involved,” said Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Clark, Coast Guard incident commander. “We take any release of oil into the maritime environment extremely seriously and we greatly appreciate the efforts of our partner agencies.”

Dive teams ultimately confirmed the 10-year-old ship had stopped leaking fuel. Repairs were made before the ship left the Port of New York and New Jersey.


Coast Guard vessel involved in collision in Florida

One person was injured when a 33-foot Coast Guard special purpose craft collided with a recreational boat near Stuart, Fla. 

There were five people aboard the 23-foot pleasure craft when the vessels made contact on Oct. 10 near Manatee Pocket on the St. Lucie River. The injured passenger aboard the boat was taken to a local hospital for treatment. 

The pleasure boat took on water and became submerged after impact. Martin County law enforcement partnered with a private salvage operator to remove the vessel.

Specifics about the collision were not disclosed. The Coast Guard said it was working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on a “thorough investigation” into what happened. 


Casualty flashback: October 1907

SS Cyprus was carrying a load of iron ore from Superior, Wis., to Buffalo, N.Y., when it sank on Oct. 11 near Deer Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Just one mariner in the 23-man crew survived. 

The accident transit was the ship’s second overall voyage after delivery from the American Ship Building Company in Lorain, Ohio. The ship was just 21 days old. 

According to the lone survivor, second mate Charles Pitz, SS Cyprus encountered a gale after departing Superior. The ship took a beating throughout the day from a northwesterly swell and developed a progressive list to port. At about 1945, the ship capsized. 

“In darkness and rolling seas, Cyprus suddenly rolled to port, turning turtle and sinking,” the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum noted. “Four men — a wheelsman, a watchman, the first mate and second mate Charles Pitz — managed to board the ship’s emergency life raft originally located behind the pilothouse. For the next six hours, the men hung on.”

As the raft approached shore, strong waves rolled it over several times. Only Pitz survived. 

Authorities could not determine what caused the ship to capsize. Before the incident, a passing vessel noticed Cyprus’ wake was reddish, indicating that iron ore dust was mixing with the water. One theory suggests lake water entered the cargo hold through a sliding steel hatch cover prone to leaking. Another suggests water entered through a poorly constructed hull.

The Great Lakes Historical Society discovered Cyprus in August 2007 using side-scan sonar aboard its research vessel David Boyd.

By Professional Mariner Staff