Four years after the deadly fire off the coast of southern California claimed 34 lives aboard the dive boat Conception, the criminal trial of the vessel’s captain has begun. Jury selection began this week for the trial of Jerry Boylan, who was responsible for Conception’s passengers and crew when a fire engulfed the vessel, killing all of the passengers, who were below decks, and one of the crew.
The US NTSB investigation concluded that Mr Boylan’s failure to post an overnight roving watchman was a key factor in the tragedy unfolding as it did on September 2nd 2019. The crew only became aware of the fire after it had grown substantially, which reduced chance of saving the vessel and its passengers.
Boylan and four crewmembers who were sleeping abovedeck were able to abandon ship and survived the casualty, but all 34 people in the belowdecks berthing area died of smoke inhalation.
The captain is accused in the indictment of being the first to abandon ship. It claims that he was guilty of a “failure to perform any lifesaving or firefighting activities whatsoever at the time of the fire, even though he was uninjured.”
Boylan and four crew members sleeping in the upper deck told investigators they tried to save the others but were ultimately forced to jump overboard to survive. Boylan made a mayday call before abandoning ship.
Boylan denies the charges and has pleaded not guilty.
Federal prosecutors first brought 34 charges of seaman’s manslaughter against Boylan in 2020, then reduced this to a single charge after a challenge by his legal team. Defence lawyers sought to dismiss the 34 charges, arguing that the deaths were the result of a single incident and not separate crimes. Prosecutors got a superseding indictment, charging Boylan with only one count.
In 2022, a federal judge threw out the revised indictment because prosecutors did not include gross negligence, which would be required in order to convict the captain of seaman’s manslaughter. Prosecutors then refiled a new case, charging him with one count of misconduct or neglect of a ship’s officer, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
A re-creation of the conditions abord the Conception by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) fire forensics division led to the conclusion that the fire likely started in a plastic rubbish bin located under a wooden ladder on the main deck. But the official cause remains undetermined.
US District Judge George Wu on October 12th granted Boylan’s request to bar most if not all references to “victims” — which the captain’s attorneys say is a prejudicial term that jeopardizes his right to a fair trial.
The NTSB’s investigation faulted the US Coast Guard for not enforcing the watchman requirement and recommended that it develop a programme to ensure that boats with overnight passengers have a watchman. Victims’ families have sued the USCG in one of several ongoing civil suits.
At the time of the fire, no owner, operator or charterer had been cited or fined for failure to post a roving patrol since 1991, USCG records revealed. It has since enacted new, congressionally mandated regulations regarding fire detection systems, extinguishers, escape routes and other safety measures.
The case hit the general press when it occurred and a few days later when, three days after the deaths, Truth Aquatics Inc, which belongs to the Conception’s owners, Glen and Dana Fritzler, filed a lawsuit in US District Court in Los Angeles under the mid-19th century law that allowed it to limit its liability to the remains of the boat, which was a total loss. The somewhat notorious legal defence requires the Fritzlers to show they were not at fault. However, in response to the families’ (and general public’s) outrage, federal legislation in 2022 updated the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 so that owners could be held liable for damages regardless of the boat’s value afterwards.
That belated action came too late for the families of the Conception dead, as the law is not retroactive