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Conception fire: captain faces fresh charges

Conception - Picture: Ventura County Fire Department.
The Conception fire (Ventura County Fire Department)
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Jerry Boylan, captain of the Conception diving liveaboard on which 34 people died in a blaze off Santa Cruz island, California in 2019, has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of both misconduct at sea (known as “seaman’s manslaughter”) and gross negligence while on duty. 

In September an earlier indictment of Boylan had been dismissed by a federal judge, as reported on Divernet – but that was because it had failed to include the gross negligence charge.

Boylan, 68, is held responsible in the indictment for a series of failures for which he faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. He is accused of having been the first of the five surviving crew to abandon the Conception, while 33 passengers and a crew-member remained trapped below decks as a result of inadequate escape-routes. 

According to the indictment Boylan “acted with a wanton or reckless disregard for human life by engaging in misconduct, gross negligence and inattention to his duties.”

Most of the crew were new or had fewer than two years’ experience, and according to the prosecution none of them had received any fire training or conducted drills.

Boylan is also accused of failure to post a roving night-watch on the boat. All the crew had been asleep when the fire broke out in the early hours of the morning, even though Boylan would have been aware that such a fire had also occurred on Conception’s sister-vessel the previous year.

When a crew-member woke to find fire and smoke on the main deck Boylan’s first action was reported to have been to order the crew to abandon ship, which they did, rather than to use the PA system to alert the passengers. One man who had wanted to go to the assistance of those left below has stated that Boylan told him they could not be saved.

Boylan is expected to appear in court to answer the charges within the next few weeks.

Within days of the fire Conception’s owners Glen & Dana Fritzler and their company Truth Aquatics had filed a suit in federal court under an archaic maritime law to avoid being compelled to compensate families of the victims. 

Relatives have however filed claims against them as well as the US Coast Guard, which is responsible for inspecting commercially operated vessels. The Coast Guard has introduced stricter fire-safety rules for liveaboards since the fatal incident.

In a statement the families said of Boylan: “This tragedy was totally preventable and due to his negligence and inaction 34 lives were lost and our lives changed forever.”

UPDATE: Boylan pleaded guilty to the new charges on 10 November. The trial was scheduled for 20 December in the US District Court in Los Angeles.

Also on Divernet: Blazing Dive-Boat Sinks, Divers Escape Red Sea Liveaboard Blaze, Woman Dies in Red Sea Liveaboard Fire,

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