The captain of the Conception dive boat that sunk to the bottom of the ocean near Santa Cruz Island in 2019 has been convicted in the deaths of the 34 souls on board.
Jerry Nehl Boylan, 69, of Santa Barbara was found guilty of misconduct or neglect of ship officer, better known as “seaman’s manslaughter.” Boylan could face up to 10 years in federal prison.
Boylan captained the Conception dive boat, a 75-foot wood and fiberglass vessel that was well known in the diving community and offered overnight stays and early morning diving excursions near the Channel Islands.
On Sept. 2, 2019, while the boat was anchored off of Santa Cruz Island, about 25 miles south of Santa Barbara, a fire broke out on board, quickly engulfing the vessel and trapping 33 passengers and one crewmember below deck.
Boylan and four crewmembers were able to jump to safety after a failed rescue attempt and were picked up by a civilian boat. The Conception, meanwhile, sunk to the seabed and those trapped underneath were killed.
It was the worst maritime disaster in the state of California in more than 150 years.
The fire was later determined to have originated in a plastic trash can below deck, according to an investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
In his federal trial, a jury found that Boylan neglected and failed his responsibility to the passengers on board; among those issues was the lack of a dedicated overnight patrol crewmember.
Maritime law requires what’s called a “roving watchman,” a crewmember tasked with staying awake while other crew sleep and ensuring the safety of those on board. Boylan’s crew did not have a roving patrol, which U.S. Coast Guard officials and National Transportation Safety Board investigators say could’ve prevented the tragedy.
Additionally, Boylan’s crew was not well-versed or regularly trained in emergency procedures and lacked the proper tools and equipment in the event disaster struck.
It was also determined that Boylan did not do everything in his power to save those trapped underneath, including not using the public announcement system to warn those onboard, not making an effort to fight the flames despite being healthy enough to do so and abandoning the ship while 34 people who were still alive were left to die.
“This ship captain’s unpardonable cowardice led to the deaths of 34 lives on Labor Day 2019,” said United States Attorney Martin Estrada. “As the jury found, this tragedy could have been avoided had Mr. Boylan simply performed the duties he was entrusted to carry out. We hope that today’s verdict brings some solace and closure to the victims’ loved ones.”
Donald Alway of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office said Boylan’s failure to carry out his duties as captain led to the “horrifying” and needless deaths of those trapped below deck. He said this tragedy is a somber reminder of why “proper training, diligence and life saving measures – when called for – are necessary to safeguard those left in one’s charge.”
Boylan is due back in court in February 2024 for his sentencing hearing. He currently is free from custody after posting a $75,000 bond.
The NTSB has issued a series of recommendations it hopes could prevent future tragedies like the sinking of Conception from happening, including requiring connected smoke detectors that signal each other in the event of a fire, rather than deploy modular detectors that trigger independently from another, as were used in Conception and is allowed by current Coast Guard regulations.
The NTSB, however, does not have the authority to implement these changes and can only make recommendations to the Coast Guard. Many of those initial recommendations have since been implemented on an interim basis.
Glen Fritzler, owner of Truth Aquatics, which operated a fleet of dive boats, including Conception, has since sold the fleet.