Is it always somebody’s fault?

My buddy “Titanic” was inbound with a dive charter when he heard an SOS. A 90-foot sightseeing boat was burning off the entrance of the harbor. He rammed the throttle to FTB (Full Tilt Boogie) and thundered towards the smoke at nine giddying knots.

Dive boats have great ladders, and he figured if anyone went overboard, he could safely retrieve them.

The burning boat was built of fire-resistant materials. Apparently “resistant” is relative, and the passengers were edging away from the flames. The thing about boats is… there aren’t many places to go.

The authorities shooed Titanic and a whale watch boat that was offering assistance away because they weren’t “official,” but did nothing to help the passengers. Sensing impending disaster, Jeff, the captain of the whale boat, got on the radio and told the “professionals” to get out of his way because he was going to take the people off.

He came alongside, and got dozens of passengers off safely, with one casualty… a sprained ankle.

At some point the “professionals” ran out of fire fighting foam and sent for more.

Official boats repeatedly tried to tow the now flaming hulk, but, gee whiz, the lines kept burning off. “Mikey the Salvage Guy,” watching from shore said, “I know how to tow that sucker, they won’t ask for help.” (You throw an anchor onto it… chain doesn’t burn.)

Imagine what would have happened to Jeff if his success had only been partial? Or what would have happened if he hadn’t taken the initiative? He was less afraid of the fire than second guessing bureaucrats.

This had a happy outcome, but assuming authority and competence equate is dangerous.

September’s tragic fire aboard a California dive boat may be a case in point.

Early accounts indicate that both the dive community and regulators held the operator in high regard. The boat apparently complied with all applicable standards, and vessels of that size are required to pass rigorous inspections regularly… inspections that require the crew to demonstrate they can perform safety procedures.

It appears that officials now are diligently trying to find some breach of regulations (whether related to the fire or not), perhaps in the belief that if you follow all the rules, bad things can’t happen. Kind of like what happens after every significant coach accident.

Time (and lawyers) will determine if the operator messed up in a significant way, but it isn’t too early to consider a few things.

If the boat was in complete compliance, then how could this happen? Could the rules be both complex and inadequate (or irrelevant)? Will regulatory heads roll? If the boat was not in compliance, who missed it? Are they going to pay a price?

Having both patronized and worked on similar boats, let me offer a third alternative: Sometimes there is just bad luck. Regulators do what they think best, and operators try hard to get things right (injuring customers is not a good marketing strategy in the Internet age).

The public makes the assumption that officials get it right. If it’s regulated, it must be safe. This tragedy demonstrates that isn’t so. Never totally trust anyone when your safety is on the line.

If this nautical scenario sounds eerily bussy, it’s because the regulatory and legal environments are similar.

There’s nothing wrong with learning from accidents and pounding genuine miscreants, but assuming that someone must be at fault and chipping away trying to find some irrelevant misstep is wrong. Improving safety standards as technology advances is good, adding layers of rules to cover regulators boootocks (quoting my hero Forrest Gump)… not so much.

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