The captain of a California dive boat that caught fire near Santa Cruz Island in 2019, killing 33 passengers and a crew member, was sentenced to 48 months in federal prison.

In November 2023 a Los Angeles jury found Jerry Nehl Boylan, 70, of Santa Barbara, guilty of misconduct or neglect of ship officer under federal law dating from the 1800s, also called “seaman’s manslaughter.”

On May 2 U.S. District Court Judge George H. Wu sentenced Boylan to 48 months in federal prison, with a restitution hearing scheduled for July 11. Boylan is appealing his conviction, amid a welter of civil lawsuits brought by victims’ families.

The Conception was a 75’ wood-and-fiberglass passenger vessel, based in the Santa Barbara, Calif,, harbor as a for-hire recreational dive boat. During a Labor Day weekend dive trip in 2019, the Conception was carrying 33 passengers and six crew members, including Boylan.

“The Conception was anchored in Platts Harbor, off Santa Cruz Island, Calif., when it caught fire in the early morning of Sept. 2, 2019,” according to the National Transportation Safety Board. “The vessel burned to the waterline and sank less than 100 feet from shore. All 33 passengers and one crewmember died of smoke inhalation after they were trapped in the berthing area while a fire raged on the deck above.”

Five crew members, including Boylan, were able to escape and survived. Prosecutors put the blame squarely on the captain.

“The defendant’s cowardice and repeated failures caused the horrific deaths of 34 people,” said U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada in Los Angeles after the sentencing. “The victims’ families will be forever devastated by this needless tragedy. While today’s sentence cannot fully heal their wounds, we hope that our efforts to hold this defendant criminally accountable brings some measure of healing to the families.”

“Boylan, as captain of the Conception, committed a series of failures – including abandoning his ship instead of rescuing passengers – that resulted in the disaster. Such conduct constituted misconduct, gross negligence, and inattention to his duties and led to the deaths of 34 victims, prosecutors argued,” according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

In its report the NTSB found that both exits from the berthing area led to the same fire- and smoke-filled area above. The agency concluded that had a safety management system been implemented, Truth Aquatics Inc., owner and operator of the Conception, could have identified unsafe practices and fire risks on the Conception and taken corrective action before the casualty occurred.

In late 2021 the Coast Guard published a new interim rule to require additional fire safety requirements for small passenger vessels, including fire detection and suppression systems, avenues of escape, egress drills, crew firefighting training, watchmen monitoring devices, and the handling of flammable items such as rechargeable batteries – all factors identified in the Conception investigation.

Still, the NTSB continues to press the Coast Guard to require wider safety management systems for passenger vessels.

In court prosecutors contended that as the ship’s captain, Boylan was ultimately responsible for the safety and security of the vessel and everyone on board but fell short by:

  • failing to have a night watch or roving patrol;
  • failing to conduct sufficient fire drills and crew training;
  • failing to provide firefighting instructions or directions to crew members after the fire started;
  • failing to use firefighting equipment, including a fire ax and fire extinguisher that were next to him in the wheelhouse, to fight the fire or attempt to rescue trapped passengers;
  • failing to perform any lifesaving or firefighting activities whatsoever at the time of the fire, even though he was uninjured;
  • failing to use the boat’s public address system to warn passengers and crew members about the fire; and
  • becoming the first crew member to abandon ship even though 33 passengers and one crew member were still alive and trapped below deck in the vessel’s bunkroom and in need of assistance to escape.

U.S. District Judge George Wu sentenced Boylan to four years in prison and three years supervised release for criminal negligence. The Associated Press reported how family members of victims asked Wu to impose a 10-year prison sentence.

But the judge said sentence guidelines would not warrant a 10-year sentence, considering Boylan’s age, health and lack of criminal intent in the case.

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