Body Counts in Dive Boat and Duck Boat Tragedies Could Resolve Long Simmering Issues Between Coast Guard and NTSB Over Tougher Safety Standards for Small Passenger Vessels Used by Millions of People

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(Note: correction on an earlier story. NTSB Board Member Jennifer Hormendy is surveying the Conception scene but will not chair an investigation into the dive ship tragedy — a position always filled by staffers.)

The US Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board finally may be heading to a high level showdown over long-standing NTSB proposals for tougher regulations protecting passengers on small passenger vessels and duck boats – vessels used by millions of people per year.

The vessels in question include duck tour boats, dive boats, casino shuttle boats and ferry boats.

The pending investigation into the burning of the dive ship Conception, added to an ongoing investigation into last year’s duck-boat tragedy, could set the stage for the Coast Guard to adopt some version of the NTSB tougher standards — proposals that have been pending for 15 to 20 years. 

The NTSB is an independent safety agency that makes but cannot enforce safety standard suggestions. The Coast Guard is responsible for adopting and enforcing maritime safety regulations.

Duck boat Stretch 7

The showdown has come at great cost.  The loss of 17 people in the sinking of the Stretch Duck 7 in 2018 and the loss of 34 lives this month on the dive ship Conception all followed strong, repeated recommendations over the years for refitting of duck boats and more rigorous pre-maintenance inspections on the dive boats and other small passenger vessels

Retired US Coast Guard Capt. Kyle McAvoy, a marine safety expert with Robson Forensic, told CNN that reform frequently occurs only after tragedy.

“A lot of regulatory and policy and safety initiatives are driven by tragic events such as this,” McAvoy said. “The expression is that a lot of regulations are written in blood.”

Investigations into both sinkings continue. While the Coast Guard recommended criminal indictments against the crew of the Stretch Duck 7, the Coast Guard recommendations on potential inspection and vessel reconfiguration reforms are still pending.  A probe into the loss of the Conception is just starting.  

But the NTSB calls for tougher requirements date back 15 to 20 years for both classes of vessel and some NTSB officials have become so frustrated that they have publicly called for duck boats to be banned. 

Jim Hall, who served as NTSB chairman under President Clinton, cited a 1999 tragedy during his tenure, when he spoke up about last year about a duck boat sinking in Missouri that claimed the lives of 17. 

Hall told USA Today that duck boats were “unregulated amusement park rides.”

 “My feeling after seeing this one is that the only thing to do in the name of public safety is to ban them. It’s the responsible thing to do to ensure (riders) are not put at risk,” he said. 

The NTSB first recommended modifications to duck boats in 1999 following the sinking of the Miss Majestic in Arkansas, which claimed 13 lives.  Essentially the proposal was for the Coast Guard to require more water tight compartments that would increase buoyancy. 

The proposal stated: 

 Require that amphibious passenger vehicle operators provide reserve buoyancy through passive means, such as watertight compartmentalization, built-in flotation, or equivalent measures, so that the vehicles will remain afloat and upright in the event of flooding, even when carrying a full complement of passengers and crew. 

Twenty years later in 2019, the NTSB notes that the proposals were not acted on and this is “Unacceptable Action.” The Stretch 7 sank in 2018 after high waves swamped the vessel and it quickly sank.

So far as the Conception and other small passenger ships (separate from duck boat class vessels) are concerned, for more than 15 years, the National Transportation Safety Board sharply has warned the US Coast Guard that it should require preventive vessel maintenance programs to avoid future small passenger ship fires such as the one that killed more than 30 people last week on the dive ship “Conception,” an in-depth look at NTSB records reveals.  

“With a required, ongoing preventive maintenance program, owners might be less likely to operate substandard vessels that place the public at risk,” the NTSB said just nine months ago after investigating a 2018 fatal fire on board a casino shuttle vessel.

One big problem with small passenger ships such as ferries and dive boats is that potential problems with engines, fuel lines and electrical systems may not be caught unless there is preventive maintenance for areas not easily accessible by routine checks.  

Transportation statistics say more than one million people ride duck boats each year. More than 100 million ride ferries.

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