Captain found guilty of ‘seaman’s manslaughter’ in deadly California boat fire

Conception boat fire

The captain of a scuba boat has been convicted of criminal negligence following a vessel fire that killed 34 people in 2019 — the deadliest US maritime disaster in recent history.

Jerry Boylan, 69, was the only person to face charges in relation to the fire, which broke out aboard the 75-foot, wood-and-fibreglass passenger vessel Conception on 2 September 2019.

A federal jury found Boylan guilty of one count of ‘misconduct or neglect of ship officer’, a pre-Civil War statute colloquially known as seaman’s manslaughter. Sentencing will take place on 8 February 2024, and Boylan faces up to 10 years behind bars.

The tragedy took place when Conception was moored off Santa Cruz Island, 40km south of Santa Barbara in California. The fire broke out before dawn on the last day of a three-day diving excursion, causing the boat to sink just 30 metres from shore.

A total of 33 passengers and one crew member were trapped in a bunkhouse below deck. The investigation revealed that Boylan was the first to abandon ship. Four crew members who jumped overboard with him also survived. The cause of the fire has never been proven. The US National Transportation Safety Board investigation has determined the fire began in a middle deck area where lithium-ion batteries were being charged.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Boylan had never properly trained his crew in firefighting, and failed to establish a night watch. This meant the fire spread rapidly across the vessel before the sleeping passengers became aware of the danger.

The defense had attempted to blame Glen Fritzler, co-owner of the vessel’s operator Truth Aquatics Inc, saying that none of his charter vessels had night watches and he had promoted a ‘lax seafaring culture’.

Speaking to reporters, U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said: “The captain is responsible for everything that happens on the ship, including, most importantly, the safety of everyone on board that ship.” He added that Boyland had “failed, utterly failed” in these responsibilities.

The disaster prompted changes to maritime regulations and civil lawsuits.

“As a result of the alleged failures of Captain Boylan to follow well-established safety rules, a pleasant holiday dive trip turned into a hellish nightmare as passengers and one crew member found themselves trapped in a fiery bunkroom with no means of escape,” said United States Attorney Nick Hanna.

“The loss of life that day will forever impact the families of the 34 victims. With this indictment and our commitment to vigorously prosecute the case, we seek a small measure of justice for the victims and their loved ones.”

Around 30 of the victims’ family members were in court to watch the verdict being delivered.

“A strong message came through that if you are captain of a boat, you are truly responsible and there are consequences if you don’t follow the law,” said Vicki Moore, mother of 26-year-old Kendra Moore who was killed along with her father Raymond Chan, 59, outside the court following the verdict.

Several civil lawsuits are still ongoing, including several filed by victims’ families against the Coastguard for alleged lax enforcement of the roving watch protocols.

Main image, courtesy of Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP.

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This article was written and/or edited by the UK-based MIN team.

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