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Newsletter: Investigating California’s worst modern boating disaster

Candles at a makeshift memorial for the Conception boat fire
A makeshift memorial for victims of the Conception boat fire.
(Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Monday, Dec. 30. Julia Wick is taking a New Year’s break, so today’s edition is brought to you by L.A. Times Deputy Managing Editor Shelby Grad.

It was the worst maritime disaster in modern California history: On Labor Day, 24 people died in a fire on board the Conception during a weekend diving trip around the Channel Islands. Since then, two questions have been asked over and over: How could this have happened? And how can this be prevented in the future?

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Times reporters Mark Puente, Richard Winton and Leila Miller have spent months trying to answer these questions in a series of investigative stories.

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Among their findings:

— U.S. Coast Guard records over 20 years show the agency repeatedly rejected some recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board for tougher rules, describing the proposals as “unnecessarily burdensome and a duplication of existing requirements.”

— The Conception was one of about 325 small passenger vessels built before 1996 and given special exemptions from safety standards that the Coast Guard imposed on new vessels, some of which required larger escape hatches and illuminated exit signs.

— More than 100 boats in California were grandfathered with weaker safety rules, according to a searchable Times database.

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The reporters’ latest story asks whether the federal rules in place worked. Coast Guard safety rules require at least one crew member roving the vessel whenever passengers are in the bunk area. But even before the Labor Day fire that killed 34 people aboard the Conception, some former captains said this critical rule designed to protect passengers was not followed. “It’s a regulation, but it wasn’t really followed,” one said.

[Read the story: “Before Conception boat fire, some captains say Coast Guard safety rule was ignored” in the Los Angeles Times]

Where is this all going?

In the aftermath of The Times’ reporting, there has been a push to tighten safety regulations. The Coast Guard also said it is now reviewing whether some of the NTSB’s earlier recommendations should be reconsidered. Expect action in Congress in 2020.

And finally, here are biographies of the victims. They were united in tragedy by a love for the sea.

And now, here’s what else is happening around California:

TOP STORIES

The plight of two friends back on the streets shows the challenges L.A. faces not just in getting people into housing, but also in keeping them there. This is the final installment of The Times’ “Street Within” series on homelessness. Los Angeles Times

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Plus:

One rapper’s rise from the streets of Koreatown. L.A. Taco

This is one way L.A. can be more humane. Los Angeles Times

2019 was the year homelessness became a true crisis in L.A. Los Angeles Times

Malibu is trying to ban pesticides. But the coastal city is expecting a big fight, and there are some unexpected foes. Los Angeles Times

How new labor laws in California will change the way many people work. Los Angeles Times

L.A. STORIES

Los Angeles police have stepped up patrols in and around Jewish communities and synagogues after a man stabbed and wounded five people gathered for a Hanukkah celebration at a rabbi’s home in New York. Los Angeles Times

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L.A. says it is ready to deal with complaints over Hollywood Hills tour vans. But we’ve heard it before. Los Angeles Times

The Grapevine is at the heart of the California freeway system. As the last week has shown, it also remains vulnerable. Los Angeles Times

A snowstorm halted hundreds of vehicles in 1940
A snowstorm halted hundreds of vehicles on Dec. 16, 1940, near Gorman on the Ridge Route, a highway between Los Angeles and Kern counties.
(Los Angeles Times)

A Christmas tree sparked a fire that killed three people in Hemet. Los Angeles Times

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

The story of PG&E: An investigation examines how weak regulators, poor management, misguided strategies and many errors caused so much destruction. Wall Street Journal

Is prison realignment money being misspent in California? Sacramento Bee

Southern California keeps turning bluer. A look at why. Orange County Register

San Jose’s once-struggling airport is taking off. That could mean an expansion for the Silicon Valley hub. Mercury News

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Another historic newspaper in California is closing. This one has a connection to Mark Twain. Los Angeles Times

California is booming. But Californians are cranky at the end of 2019. New York Times

The Netflix series “You” moved from New York to L.A. and picked up a lot of stereotypes along the way. The creators explain why. Los Angeles Times

Playa del Rey is having a moment. And some say it’s affordable ... if you are moving from Bel-Air. New York Times

San Francisco’s “Beach Blanket Babylon” is coming to an end and might be perfect for this moment in history. San Francisco Chronicle

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: partly cloudy, 66. San Diego: cloudy, 64. San Francisco: sunny, 57. San Jose: sunny, 58. Sacramento: sunny, 60. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

This week’s birthdays for those who made a mark in California:

Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax (Dec. 30, 1935), Nobel laureate and UC Berkeley cell biology professor Randy Schekman (Dec. 30, 1948), golf pro Tiger Woods (Dec. 30, 1975) Lakers star LeBron James (Dec. 30, 1984) and Snap Chairman Michael Lynton (Jan. 1, 1960).

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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