The public’s insatiable demand for selfies and the need for electricity to keep cell phones charged might be a hidden suspect in California’s biggest boating tragedy in years.
The Coast Guard issued a warning to boat owners and operators Sept. 10 telling them to limit unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and the use of power strips.
After talking with several knowledgeable people and reading through post-event reporting on the Labor Day fire and tragic deaths aboard the dive boat Conception, I think there is a possibility that it was a problem with electrical charging that kicked off a string of events that lead to the deaths of 34 people.
This is strictly a theory and at press time there was no official word from the National Transportation Safety Board nor any other investigators about what caused the Conception to catch fire and sink in the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 2. The NTSB issued a preliminary report Sept. 12 with details of the boat tragedy but no conclusions and said it would keep investigating.
None of the experts I spoke with would speak on the record about the probability of a fire related to electronics as contributing to the cause of the blaze. And none of what follows is meant as an excuse for human or equipment failings that may come to light as law enforcement agencies conclude their inquiry and litigation proceeds.
However, there has been reporting in the Los Angeles Times about a large number of electronic devices plugged in to charge overnight in the galley area of the boat, where the fire is believed to have started. One expert I spoke with conveyed additional speculation among public safety agencies that the proliferation of devices plugged in to charge overnight may have led to an overheated battery, which then caught fire.
Two of the people I spoke with mentioned the fact that boats run on direct or DC current and that an inverter is typically used to convert the power to alternating current or AC before devices can be charged. This raises the possibility that the inverter, the wires connecting the inverter to the battery or the battery all could have been subject to an overload, they said. It was the last night of the trip so the charging load might have been unusually high.
An engineer with years of CEO experience pointed to previous problems with fires involving cell phones and devices with lithium ion batteries on airplanes. Just one example among many is the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, which was the subject of a worldwide recall just three years ago; many of the devices are still in use – and don’t have the software fix designed to reduce overheating.
Once the sunken remains of the Conception are recovered, it is expected to be towed to Ventura County where an advanced team of forensic experts from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will be looking for clues. I will state again that an electrical fire is just one of many possible theories the ATF will be exploring.
But another engineering expert I spoke with said it is accurate to say that many older dive boats were not designed with the idea of charging dozens of cell phones at the same time. And the Conception was the second oldest of the boats in the Truth Aquatics fleet. When it went into service in the early 1980s, the IBM PC was all the rage, people were sharing data via floppy disks and cell phones were more than a decade in the future.
This raises the unusual prospect that the deaths on the Conception were partially the result of the boat crew and boat ownership failing to manage technology — in this case equipment charging — in a way that was mindful of what could go wrong. It would be among the most tragic examples anywhere of how technology disrupts our idea of how business management should be practiced.
The families of the people who died on the Conception deserve straight talk and real answers. And if electrical issues were at fault due to the proliferation of plug-in devices, boating enthusiasts everywhere, especially those with older boats, should be put on notice about how to prevent more tragedies like these.
• Contact Editor Henry Dubroff at [email protected]