Captain Jerry Boylan | Credit: Kim Castro-Bran

The criminal charge of misconduct or neglect by a ship’s officer against Jerry Boylan was reinstated today, in the deaths of 33 passengers and a crew member aboard the Conception dive boat, which caught fire while anchored in the Santa Barbara Channel near Santa Cruz Island on September 2, 2019. The charge of seaman’s manslaughter had been dismissed by a federal court last month, for a lack of inclusion of gross negligence. The single count in the new federal grand jury indictment against Boylan “alleges a series of failures and the abandoning of his ship, which constituted ‘misconduct, gross negligence, and inattention to his duties,’ and led to the deaths of 34 victims,” according to a press release this Tuesday from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, which is prosecuting the case.

Boylan stands accused of abandoning ship and saving himself, failing in many of his responsibilities as captain. The press release enumerated those failures, including failing to have a night watch or roving patrol, a watch that the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) had identified as a key factor that could have prevented the tragedy; failing in instructing the crew in fire prevention before the fire and once it started; and failing “to perform any lifesaving or firefighting activities whatsoever at the time of the fire, even though he was uninjured.” The final failure listed was “becoming the first crewmember to abandon ship ‘even though 33 passengers and one crewmember were still alive and trapped below deck in the vessel’s bunkroom and in need of assistance to escape.'”

According to the crew’s testimony, Boylan told them he believed the passengers were beyond saving. Information in the coroner’s reports demonstrate that some passengers were dressed, some haphazardly in mismatched shoes, when they died, apparently of asphyxiation.

The Conception caught fire somewhere between 2:30 a.m. and 3:15 a.m. — a time span that marks when the last crewmember went to sleep and when Boylan sent a mayday call that the ship was on fire. While the captain and most of the crew slept above the galley area, the passengers and one crewmember were sleeping belowdecks. Both of the exits from that belowdecks bunkroom led to the galley, which was engulfed in fire and smoke, caused by what is thought to be household-grade wiring and lithium batteries that were charging on a rat’s nest of extension cords.

In making its final report, the NTSB stated it was unable to determine the exact cause of the fire as the FBI retained much of the evidence. The FBI, the Coast Guard Investigative Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are still investigating the fire, the press release stated.

Boylan will appear on an arraignment regarding the new charge in the coming weeks. Should he be found guilty, Boylan faces a maximum of 10 years in federal prison.

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