Deadly lessons on the Chesapeake

September 19, 1994

After investigating the deaths of three people in the sinking of a fishing boat in the Chesapeake Bay last December, a federal agency is proposing tighter safety rules that are both reasonable and overdue.

The National Transportation Safety Board wants the Coast Guard to require life boats on small passenger vessels to keep victims out of cold waters and protect them from overexposure. That was a cause of the three deaths in the Dec. 5 sinking of the El Toro II out of St. Mary's County.

Automatic bilge alarms to indicate flooding, lacking on the El Toro II, should also be required on wooden vessels, the board recommended.

The NTSB report this month found that the El Toro II sank because nails, screws and bolts holding its 32-year-old wooden hull together had badly rusted, allowing three planks to separate and water to enter the craft. It urged the Coast Guard, which annually inspects these boats, to demand that fasteners on wooden vessels older than 15 years be overhauled and that inspections of these fasteners be improved.

"Had some of the previous recommendations of the board been acted on, there was a possibility that fatalities would not have occurred," the acting NTSB chairman said. That has been obvious during the investigations that followed the sinking of the fishing boat with 23 persons aboard.

The Coast Guard revised its outdated inspection rules several months ago, requiring the removal of suspect fasteners and of wooden planks, if necessary. All boats that are at least 15 years old must be tested in operation on the water, as well.

The El Toro II passed Coast Guard inspections in the spring of 1993, but some experts said that nails and screws should have been pulled during the review. An insurance inspector said he found the boat unfit on several counts just three days before the fateful voyage, but said he believed the vessel would not go out until the next spring.

Tighter inspection of wooden passenger craft by the Coast Guard will now occur; nails, spikes, screws and bolts will be pulled to see if they are sound, regardless of cost to the owner.

We hope the Coast Guard will require the safety equipment recommended by the NTSB. We would also urge that insurance inspectors who spot dangerous conditions on craft they cover should report those findings promptly; vessels listed as risks should be identified to the Coast Guard for immediate corrective action. While these may be added annoyances for passenger boat operators, they are fully justified to prevent another such fatal boating tragedy on the bay.

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