The “Odd Couple” On-Site Investigators on the Dive Ship “Conception” Tragedy: A Civilian Safety Critic of the Coast Guard and a Seasoned, Coast Guard Officer with a Reputation for Reform

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(Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Jennifer Hormendy might lead the NTSB investigating panel. In fact, Board Members do not serve as active investigators but wait until staff has filed a final report before they review and comment.)

On-scene Investigators into the loss of the dive ship Conception are both respected senior transportation safety investigators but with distinctly different backgrounds and experience in shipwreck probes.

Jennifer Homendy, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, was on the scene to make an initial assessment and prepare to assign staff investigators.

The NTSB is likely to take the lead role in a parallel investigation with the Coast Guard. In most major ship casualties, the Coast Guard generally calls a formal Marine Board of Investigation — its highest level of inquiry — and works with the NTSB investigators.

While Homendy is playing a high profile role now, NTSB board members do not actually conduct hearings or investigations. In fact, once NTSB staff is assigned, the board members are more or less “walled off” from the investigation.

Once the staff investigation is complete, the board members do actively engage in reviewing the findings.

Homendy is an expert in pipelines and hazardous material. Her NTSB biography makes no mention of extensive maritime experience and speeches and testimony she has delivered deal primarily with railroads, pipelines and auto safety.

However, she reviewed the investigation into the sinking of a small passenger ship in 2018 and signed off on a December report that was critical of the Coast Guard for declining for fifteen years to implement an NTSB proposal to require tough preventive maintenance on small passenger ships such as the Conception.

The NTSB investigation suggested that the Coast Guard might have prevented the tragedy of the Island Lady, which burned off the Florida coast and resulted in the death of a mother with twin 12-year-olds, if the Coast Guard followed NTSB recommendations.

“Had the Coast Guard completed implementation of Safety Recommendation M-02-5, (the owners) would have been required to have a compliant preventive maintenance program subject to Coast Guard oversight, and the Island Lady fire may have been prevented,” the NTSB said in a report signed by Homendy.

Captain Jason D. Neubauer of the Coast Guard is a senior, seasoned maritime safety expert who most recently conducted a formal Marine Board of Investigation in the loss of the SS El Faro in 2015. The final report of that high-profile probe found fault within the Coast Guard and proposed major reforms in inspections and in the oversight of private inspection agencies such as the American Bureau of Shipping.

He has the reputation of being polite and pleasant during Marine Boards of Investigation — while also relentlessly bearing down on issues and evidence. The SS El Faro Marine Board of Investigation spanned two years and was highly critical of the ship owners and inspection services.

MT6Y7F Capt. Jason Neubauer, center, the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation chairman, questions a witness Monday, Feb. 13, 2017, during week two of the final S.S. El Faro MBI hearing in Jacksonville, Florida. Neubauer, along with other members of the panel, queried various witnesses during the hearing sessions to obtain information crucial to their investigation into the S.S. El Faro sinking in October 2015. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Anthony L. Soto

The dynamics between the NTSB and the Coast Guard theoretically could be strained given the NTSB’s consistent criticism of the Coast Guard for not requiring preventive maintenance on small passenger ships such as the Conception. The suggestion first arose more than 15 years ago after a casino shuttle boat caught fire because of poor maintenance of a fuel pipe and the Coast Guard consistently declined to act.

No clear cause of the ship fire has surfaced, with speculation focusing on battery charging stations among other possible causes. However, NTSB records shows that most small passenger ship fires occur because systems fail or overheat.