Faces 10 Years for Fiery Deaths of 34 Aboard California Scuba Dive Boat

Justice Served? Captain Faces 10 Years for Fiery Deaths of 34 Aboard California Scuba Dive Boat

LOS ANGELES – A federal judge is due to sentence a scuba dive boat skipper on Thursday for criminal negligence after 34 people perished in a fire aboard the vessel nearly five years ago.

The September 2, 2019, fire was the deadliest marine accident in modern US history, prompting reforms in maritime legislation, congressional reform, and multiple ongoing litigation.

Last year, Captain Jerry Boylan was found guilty of one count of misconduct or neglect of duty as a ship officer. The charge is a pre-Civil War statute known as seaman’s manslaughter, which was intended to make steamboat commanders and crew accountable for maritime disasters.

Boylan’s appeal is underway. He risks up to ten years in prison.

The defense is asking the judge to sentence Boylan to five years probation, three of which will be served under home arrest.

“While the loss of life here is staggering, there can be no dispute that Mr. Boylan did not intend for anyone to die,” his attorneys stated in a sentencing letter. “Indeed, Mr. Boylan lives with significant grief, remorse, and trauma as a result of the deaths of his passengers and crew.”

The Conception was tied off Santa Cruz Island, 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Santa Barbara when it caught fire before dawn on the last day of a three-day trip and sank less than 100 feet (30 meters) from shore.

Thirty-three passengers and one staff member died when trapped in a bunkroom below deck. Among those killed were a deckhand who had landed her dream job, an environmental scientist who performed research in Antarctica, a globetrotting couple, a Singaporean data scientist, and a family of three sisters, their father, and his wife.

Boylan was the first to flee the ship and jump overboard. Four crew members who accompanied him also survived.

Unless Boylan’s appeal is successful, Thursday’s punishment marks the end of a contentious prosecution that has lasted nearly five years and has frequently disappointed the victims’ relatives.

In 2020, a grand jury indicted Boylan on 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter, which could have resulted in a total of 340 years in prison. Boylan’s defense argued that the killings were the result of a single occurrence rather than separate crimes, thus prosecutors obtained a superseding indictment charging Boylan with only one count.

In 2022, U.S. District Judge George Wu dismissed the superseding indictment for failing to establish that Boylan behaved with gross negligence. Prosecutors were then required to appear before the grand jury again.

Although the exact origin of the blaze aboard the Conception is unknown, prosecutors and defense attorneys attempted to assign responsibility throughout the 10-day trial last year.

The government claimed Boylan failed to maintain the mandatory roving night watch and never adequately trained his personnel in firefighting. The lack of a roving watch allowed the fire to grow undetected throughout the 75-foot (23-meter) yacht.

Boylan’s attorneys, meanwhile, sought to blame Glen Fritzler, who runs Truth Aquatics Inc. with his wife and operates the Conception and two other scuba dive boats, frequently throughout the Channel Islands. They claimed Fritzler was to blame for failing to teach the crew firefighting and other safety precautions, as well as for instilling a permissive nautical culture known as “the Fritzler way,” in which no captain who worked for him posted roving watches.

The Fritzlers have not talked publicly about the incident since an appearance with a local television station a few days after it occurred. Their lawyers have never replied to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Following the conclusion of the criminal case, emphasis now shifts to various outstanding litigation.

Truth Aquatics filed suit three days after the fire, citing a pre-Civil War provision of maritime law that allows it to restrict its culpability to the worth of the boat’s remnants, which were a total loss. The time-tested legal tactic has been successfully adopted by the owners of the Titanic and other vessels, and the Fritzlers must demonstrate that they were not at fault.

That case is still unresolved, as are others filed by victims’ relatives against the Coast Guard for alleged inadequate implementation of the roving watch obligation.

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