WASHINGTON – Even before the South Korea ferry disaster Wednesday, maritime accidents were a major concern for U.S. safety advocates.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents, added improvements to passenger-vessel safety this year to its 10 most wanted recommendations.
The added attention followed repeated accident investigations that revealed safety lapses aboard passenger vessels rather than equipment malfunction.
In 2003, the Staten Island ferry Andrew J. Barberi carrying 1,500 passengers struck a pier, killing 11 people from blunt-force injuries and injuring 70. Damage was estimated at $6.9 million to the ship and $1.4 million to the pier.
The NTSB blamed the accident on the assistant captain's unexplained incapacitation and the failure of the city Transportation Department to effectively oversee its ferries.
In 2008, the Block Island ferry carrying 305 people collided off Rhode Island with the Coast Guard cutter Morro Bay with 21 people aboard.
The investigation found a failure to follow navigational "rules of the road" on the foggy afternoon and ineffective use of radar on both vessels. The Block Island didn't have enough survival craft for all its passengers, although only two were injured.
As part of its most-wanted list, the NTSB urged better fire detection and suppression systems on passenger vessels, voyage-data recorders similar to those on airliners, and enough survival craft for all passengers and crewmembers. But the recommendations are non-binding and it will be up to regulators and industry whether they are adopted.
Capt. Ernest Fink, dean of maritime education and training at the State University of New York Maritime College, said U.S. ferries are well regulated and inspected by the Coast Guard.
"All those vessels are inspected and they have to meet some very rigorous standards for life-saving equipment, hull structure, stability," said Fink, who served 32 years in the Coast Guard.
Ferry disasters in other countries often occur in stormy weather and sometimes capsize from overcrowding. Investigators will study the stability of the South Korean ferry to see if there were design problems or if it was overcrowded, Fink said.
If questions arise about crew training, the International Maritime Organization could weigh in with recommendations, he said.
"I would say here in the United States there is a very high standard those vessels have to meet," Fink said. "We don't know what that is around the rest of the world."
The NTSB has long recommended safety management systems for passenger vessels, which Congress mandated in 2010.
But the Coast Guard and industry have resisted NTSB recommendations for data recorders on ferries as too costly for the benefits provided.
The House voted this month to require only newly built ferries to carry enough life rafts to keep passengers out of the water if they abandon ship, in contrast to the 2010 law that required all boats to carry survival craft by 2015.
In a report to Congress last August, the Coast Guard said it would cost existing vessels $154.3 million to replace life floats and other apparatus with out-of-the-water survival craft. The 10-year cost, which would include servicing and maintaining the added equipment, would be $350.2 million, the agency said.
The Coast Guard said 504 people were killed or missing in 224 "vessel casualties" and "immersion in the water" from 1991 through 2011. Nearly 90% of the casualties occurred in commercial fishing vessels, the agency said.
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said accidents repeatedly show the need for ensuring that passengers can be kept out of the water in an emergency.
If fire had spread faster aboard the Queen of the West, which was carrying 177 people on the Columbia River in Oregon in April 2008, passengers would have had to evacuate into cold river water with only life jackets for flotation, she told Congress in an October letter.
The board held a two-day forum in March to study cruise-ship safety.