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Conception boat fire: Captain charged with 34 counts of seaman's manslaughter

California boat owners faulted for fire that killed 34
Posted at 5:28 PM, Dec 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-01 20:28:11-05

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The captain of the Conception, a Santa Barbara- based dive boat that caught fire last year near Santa Cruz Island, resulting in the deaths of 33 passengers and one crew member, was indicted today by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles on 34 counts of seaman's manslaughter.

Jerry Nehl Boylan, 67, of Santa Barbara, was named in the indictment that alleges Boylan, as the captain and master of the vessel, ``was responsible for the safety and security of the vessel, its crew, and its passengers.''

Each of the 34 little-used seaman's manslaughter counts carries a penalty of up to 10 years in federal prison, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Federal prosecutors informed Boylan's attorneys of the indictment after it was filed, and the defendant is expected to self-surrender to federal authorities in the coming weeks.

The indictment alleges that Boylan caused the deaths of 33 passengers and one crew member -- including two Santa Monica residents -- ``by his misconduct, negligence, and inattention to his duties.''

Marybeth Guiney and Charles McIlvain, diving enthusiasts who lived in the same Santa Monica condominium complex, were among the nearly three dozen people trapped aboard the Conception when it sank amid a three-day Labor Day weekend diving trip to the Channel Islands.

The indictment cites three specific safety violations: failing to have a night watch or roving patrol, which was required by the Code of Federal

Regulations and for over 20 years was a requirement in the Conception's Certificate of Inspection issued by the U.S. Coast Guard; failing to conduct sufficient fire drills, which are mandated in the CFR; and failing to conduct sufficient crew training, which was also required by the CFR.

The 75-foot, wood-and-fiberglass passenger vessel docked in Santa Barbara Harbor. On what would be its final voyage, the boat carried 33 passengers and six crew members.

During the predawn hours of Sept. 2, 2019, a fire broke out while the boat was anchored in Platt's Harbor near Santa Cruz Island. The fire, which engulfed the boat and led to its sinking, resulted in the deaths of 34 people who had been sleeping below deck. Boylan was among five crew members who were able to escape.

``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 bunk room with no means of escape,'' said U.S. 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.''

The fire aboard the Conception is one of California's deadliest maritime disasters, prompting criminal and safety investigations. The families of victims have filed claims against the boat owners, Glen and Dana Fritzler and Truth Aquatics, and the Fritzlers and the company, in turn, filed a legal claim to shield them from damages under a maritime law that limits liability for vessel owners.

The families' suits allege that the 41-year-old Conception was in blatant violation of numerous Coast Guard regulations, including failing to maintain an overnight ``roving'' safety watch and failure to provide a safe

means for storing and charging lithium-ion batteries, and that the below-decks passenger accommodations lacked emergency exits.

``Nothing will ever replace the 34 lives that were lost in the Conception tragedy,'' said Special Agent in Charge Kelly S. Hoyle of the Coast Guard Investigative Service-Pacific Region. ``Our hearts remain with the families as the Coast Guard continues to work with our partners in the Department of Justice on this investigation.''