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SAFETY BOARD BLAMES COAST GUARD FOR 4 BOAT DEATHS

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Federal safety investigators are blaming the boat accident deaths of four people in Oregon last year on the Coast Guard's failure to require lifeboats and a signal beacon on the vessel that carried them.

The National Transportation Safety Board has tried for years to get the Coast Guard to toughen requirements for an estimated 4,700 small commercial vessels that are equipped to carry 300,000 passengers."There has been a long, documented absence of regulatory action," said board member Jim Burnett.

The board's 3-0 decision this week was the first time it has said the service's lack of regulations contributed to deaths in an ocean accident. The Sept. 15, 1988, incident off the coast of Oregon involved the sinking of the Cougar, a 46-foot vessel used to carry passengers on a fishing trip.

After the boat took on water and sank, passengers and crew were left in the cold Pacific Ocean, clinging to float devices and debris, for 18 hours as searchers tried to locate them. The captain, a deckhand and two passengers died. A ship's mate and four other passengers survived.

The last victim drowned 15 minutes before a helicopter rescued the others about 35 miles out into the ocean, west of Depoe Bay, investigators said.

The board also blamed the Coast Guard for failing during inspections to confirm the watertightness of hatchcovers on boat's deck.

Its report said the probable cause of the accident was the captain's failure to ensure that his hatchcovers were watertight, that the bilge pump was operating properly and that rubber flaps designed to let water flow off the deck were correctly installed. The captain was not identified in the report.

The flaps were on the wrong side, preventing water from flowing off the deck, investigators said. The ship sank in moderately heavy seas while returning from a fishing trip, after its crew and passengers tried for 90 minutes to remove water with buckets.