Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol closes the loading dock in the harbor while coroners receive remains from the Conception boat fire. | Credit: Paul Wellman

Jerry Boylan, the captain of the Conception, was charged with 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter in the deaths of the 33 divers and one crewmember who’d been sleeping below the decks of his vessel on September 2, 2019. A federal grand jury brought the charges on December 1, and Boylan is expected to surrender to federal prosecutors in coming weeks.

The Conception tragedy has shadowed the dive community ever since news broke of the raging fire in the ship’s salon/galley near 3 a.m. while the ship was anchored off Santa Cruz Island. As news trickled out that day of the search for survivors that soon turned to a recovery operation for their bodies, horror gripped the Santa Barbara community with the knowledge 34 people had apparently suffocated to death during a Labor Day weekend underwater adventure.

“As a result of the alleged failures of Captain Boylan to follow well-established safety rules, a pleasant holiday dive trip turned into a hellish nightmare as passengers and one crew member found themselves trapped in a fiery bunkroom with no means of escape,” said United States Attorney Nick Hanna. “The loss of life that day will forever impact the families of the 34 victims. With this indictment and our commitment to vigorously prosecute the case, we seek a small measure of justice for the victims and their loved ones.”

Boylan, as the captain and master of the vessel, “was responsible for the safety and security of the vessel, its crew, and its passengers,” the indictment reads. He is charged with failing to have a night watch, which could have spotted the fire when it started; failing to conduct fire drills; and failing to train the crew sufficiently.

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Within three days of the fire, the owners of the Conception, Glen and Dana Fritzler of Truth Aquatics, had filed for protection from lawsuits under an 1851 law known as the Limitation of Liability Act. That law limits any compensation sought by survivors of the victims to the value of the ship’s remains. The Conception had burned to its waterline by daybreak, and it soon overturned and sank. Its value was zero. Lawsuits were brought by one crewmember, who was injured while escaping the fire, and several family members of the deceased.

The surviving crew described hearing popping noises, and suspicion grew that lithium ion batteries charging in the salon from a night diving expedition — which included the use of video and still cameras and lights — and for cell phones and laptop computers had started the fire. The Coast Guard issued a bulletin two weeks after the fire advising small passenger vessels of the fire hazard posed by unsupervised battery charging.

When the National Transportation Safety Board released the final report of its investigation on October 20 of this year, it could not identify the source of the fire. Instead, it gave possibilities: the Conception‘s electrical system, unattended batteries being charged, improperly discarded smoking materials, or “other” factors. But the report was replete with criticism of the lack of smoke detectors aboard the ship, inadequate escape hatches, and an absence of crew training — with culpability laid on the ship owner and Coast Guard inspections and rules. The NTSB also held off from investigating the captain due to the U.S. Attorney’s ongoing criminal investigation. However, Boylan took the brunt of the NTSB’s blame for sensing the fire too late. Though many interviewed called him a good captain with decades of experience in the Channel, the NTSB determined he’d ignored the required roving night patrol on passenger vessels for years.

Congressmembers Salud Carbajal and Julia Brownley took matters into their own hands, introducing the Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act, which directs revisions to the maritime code to modernize and update its regulation of escape hatches, batteries, smoke detectors, and night watch check-ins. Included in the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act, it has a good chance of passage, and Carbajal will be a conferee on the bill as a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

For the families, however, many of whom bonded after meeting during the long hours waiting for news from the rescue divers on the wreck, they hope better regulations will prevent a repeat of the tragedy. Even if Boylan were charged with the statutory maximum of 10 years per charge of manslaughter, it little affects the pain of loss.

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