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story.lead_photo.caption In this Sept. 2, 2019 file photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, a dive boat is engulfed in flames off the Southern California Coast. Records show the diving boat that caught fire off California, killing 34 people, was among hundreds of small vessels exempted by the Coast Guard from stricter safety rules designed to make it easier for passengers to escape. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP,File)

LOS ANGELES -- The diving boat that caught fire on Labor Day off Southern California, killing 34 people, was among hundreds of small vessels exempted by the U.S. Coast Guard from stricter safety rules designed to make it easier for passengers to escape, according to a newspaper report.

The Conception was one of 325 boats that were built before 1996 and given exemptions from standards imposed on new vessels, according to records cited Monday by the Los Angeles Times. The newer rules required escape hatches at least 32 inches wide, as well as illuminated exit signs.

The Conception, built in 1981, had a 24-inch hatch and no illuminated signs.

It's unclear whether such measures would have made a difference on the Conception, the newspaper said. Crew members on deck said they were unable to reach passengers trapped in the hull below because of intense flames.

U.S. authorities are conducting criminal and safety investigations into the fire, which killed all 33 passengers and one crew member sleeping in stacked bunks below deck. The blaze's cause has not been determined.

National Transportation Safety Board investigator Jennifer Homendy told the Los Angeles 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 fire's aftermath, the Coast Guard has stepped up inspections of similar boats across the country, the newspaper said. Several boat owners have said that among the issues inspectors have raised are the size of escape hatches, the fire protection systems and the crews' training in emergencies.

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

Kyle McAvoy, a marine safety expert at Robson Forensic and former chief of the Coast Guard's Office of Commercial Vessel Compliance Policy, said the grandfathering of older vessels often happens when complying with 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," said McAvoy, who retired as a Coast Guard captain in 2016.

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

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

Small passenger vessels weighing less than 100 tons fall under Subchapter T of the Code of Federal Regulations for boats.

A Section on 11/27/2019

Print Headline: Boat in fatal fire had safety-rule exemptions

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