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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
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Marine firefighting expert claims dive boat captain caused passengers’ death

An associate professor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy told the jury that the failure of the Conception's captain to have a roving patrol at night caused the death of all 33 passengers on board.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A marine firefighting expert testified Tuesday that the captain of a dive boat that went up in flames four years ago off the coast of Central California caused the deaths of 33 passengers and one crew member who were trapped below deck.

Captain Sean Tortora, who teaches marine firefighting courses at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, was called as an expert witness for the prosecution at the trial of Jerry Boylan, the captain of the Conception who is accused of seaman's manslaughter.

"If they had been warned, they would have been saved," Tortora told jurors in federal court in Los Angeles. If there had been a roving patrol or night watch on the vessel, "we wouldn't be sitting here today. These people would be at home," he said.

Boylan, 70, is charged with misconduct or neglect of a ship officer. Prosecutors with the U.S. attorney's office in LA accuse him of not having a required night watch on the boat and being the first to abandon ship — and telling the rest of the crew to do the same — instead of trying to stop the fire and save the people trapped below deck.

"A captain shouldn't abandon the vessel — he has to direct the crew," Tortora testified. "They need the captain — he cannot abdicate his duty."

According to Tortora, Boylan failed to train and drill his inexperienced crew in firefighting on board, failed to have the required roving patrol when there are passengers sleeping on board, which he said would have prevented the tragedy, and failed to warn the passengers once he knew the boat was on fire.

Rather than using the Conception's public address system to direct the crew members and to warn the passengers who were all sleeping below deck, Boylan radioed the Coast Guard for help, which Tortora likened to calling 911.

Although Boylan's defense lawyers have said that he acted as he has been taught by the boat's owner, who didn't have a night watch on any of the three dive boats his company operated, that excuse didn't wash with Tortora.

"The company doesn't take the ship to sea," Tortora said. "The captain takes the ship to sea. The buck stops with the captain."

Some of the five surviving crew members testified last week how they scrambled to save the trapped passengers after they discovered the raging fire on the main deck. When they climbed down to the main deck, they said, the flames had already engulfed the boat's salon where both the regular staircase down the bunk room as well as the escape hatch from it were located.

Boylan, the crew members testified, jumped from the wheelhouse on the upper deck straight into the ocean after making mayday call to the Coast Guard. After he climbed back on the stern of the burning Conception, he neither directed or helped the crew to fight the flames, according to their testimony.

A captain of a Southern California dive boat that operates similar overnight trips as the Conception did, testified earlier Tuesday that he always has a night watch or roving patrol during the hours when the passengers are asleep.

"It's the rules," David Harvey told the jury. "That's what we're supposed to do."

The prosecution is expected to wrap up its case Wednesday, and then the defense can call its witnesses. Earlier, Boylan's lawyers said they haven't decided yet if they will call him to testify.

A criminal investigator with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives testified on Tuesday that the bureau's tests had determined that the fire on the Conception started in a trashcan underneath the stairs from the main deck to the upper deck where five of the crew members slept in the wheelhouse.

Milton French, the first deckhand on the fatal Labor Day diving trip in 2019, told the jury last week that when he was woken up by other crew members in the middle of the night, the flames from the boat's main deck were already 15 feet high and coming over the railing of the upper the deck.

The crew's second deckhand, Allie Kurz, with whom French was in a romantic relationship, was on her second overnight trip on the Conception and was assigned to sleep with the passengers below. She perished with them. French said that until a few weeks before the fatal trip, he had been the crew member who slept below deck to assist the passengers in case they needed anything during the night.

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