Captain in Deadly Dive Boat Fire Indicted on 34 Counts of Manslaughter

FILE – In this Sept. 2, 2019, file photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the dive boat Conception is engulfed in flames after a deadly fire broke out aboard the commercial scuba diving vessel off the Southern California Coast. The fire killed 34 people aboard the scuba boat off the coast of Southern California. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP, File)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal grand jury on Tuesday charged the dive boat captain who abandoned his burning vessel in a September 2019 blaze that killed 33 passengers and one crew member.

Jerry Nehl Boylan, 67, faces 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison if convicted.

Federal safety investigators say Boylan and the four crewmembers who also survived were asleep when the fire broke out off the Santa Cruz Island coast. The 34 victims died in the lower decks where the sleeping quarters were located.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board reported this year that the crewmembers on the upper decks stumbled about in the dark as the fire ripped through the lower decks and smoke blocked fire exits.

Crewmembers looked for a fire ax in the vessel’s wheelhouse during the pandemonium, later telling investigators that when they got to the part of the boat where they thought the ax would be they saw Boylen leap into the water after trying to make a distress call.

Nearly four hours after the fire erupted, the Conception sank in 61 feet of water.

Investigators found crewmembers did not receive fire training and the 75-foot dive boat’s fire drill logs were burned in the fire. But a 2017 United States Coast Guard inspection found the logs were not up to date.

This past October, the NTSB said it could not say what sparked the fire, but that it may have been related to a battery charger. They said multiple variables made the incident all the more deadly, including the boat operator’s inadequate policies.

A nightwatchman was not on patrol and that likely allowed the fire to burn the rear of the main deck unnoticed. The NTSB lambasted the boat’s operator Truth Aquatics and said another fire occurred on another one of its vessels months before the Conception fire. That fire was sparked by a lithium battery that was charging and investigators say that may have caused the deadly Conception fire.

On Tuesday, the federal grand jury accused Boylan of causing the deaths of the passengers and crewmember through “his misconduct, negligence and inattention to his duties.”

According to the indictment, three major safety violations occurred including the absence of a night watch in violation of the U.S. Coast Guard’s inspection guidelines.

The lack of fire drills and training for the crewmembers were also highlighted in the 5-page indictment that listed all the victims by their initials. A final version of the indictment was not available by press time.

The fatal voyage occurred in the calm waters off the Pacific Coast over the Labor Day weekend in 2019.

“As a result of the alleged failures of Capt. 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 U.S. Attorney Nicola Hanna in a statement. “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 incident remains an ongoing investigation by the Coast Guard, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Multiple lawsuits have been filed against Truth Aquatics by the surviving family members. The company did not immediately respond to an email and phone call seeking comment.

Federal prosecutors said Boylan is expected to surrender in the coming weeks.

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