Former captain faces 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter in 2019 fire
The boat captain of the Conception, which caught fire last year near Santa Cruz Island and resulted in the deaths of 33 passengers and one crew member, was indicted Tuesday by a federal grand jury on 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter.
Jerry Nehl Boylan, 67, of Santa Barbara, was named in the indictment returned Tuesday afternoon by a federal grand jury that alleges he, as the captain and master of the vessel, “was responsible for the safety and security of the vessel, its crew and its passengers,” read a statement released by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
Federal prosecutors informed Mr. Boylan’s attorneys of the indictment after it was filed. Authorities said he is expected to self-surrender to federal authorities “in the coming weeks.”
The indictment accuses Mr. Boylan of causing the deaths of 33 passengers and one crew member by “his misconduct, negligence and inattention to his duties,” in what was one of California’s worst maritime disasters.
Specifically, the indictment cites three notable safety violations: failing to have a night watch or roving patrol, which was required by the Code of Federal Regulations and for over 20 years was a requirement in the Conception’s Certificate of Inspection issued by the U.S. Coast Guard; failing to conduct sufficient fire drills, which are mandated in the Code of Federal Regulations; and failing to conduct sufficient crew training, which was also required by the Code of Federal Regulations.
The Conception was a 75-foot passenger vessel that docked at the Santa Barbara Harbor. During a Labor Day weekend dive trip last year, the boat carried 33 passengers and six crew members, including Mr. Boylan.
During the early morning hours of Sept. 2, 2019, a fire broke out while the boat was anchored in Platt’s Harbor near Santa Cruz Island. The fire, which engulfed the boat and led to its sinking, resulted in the death of 34 people who had been sleeping below deck. Five crew members, including Mr. Boylan, were able to escape and survived.
“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,” U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said in a statement. “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.”
Added Kristi K. Johnson, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, “The FBI provided extensive investigative and technical resources to the joint investigation, including expert divers and evidence recovery assets. Our hope is that this indictment leads to the prevention of boating accidents and the senseless destruction of lives through proper precautions and training.”
Each charge of seaman’s manslaughter carries a statutory maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison, authorities said.
The ongoing investigation in this matter is being conducted by the FBI; Coast Guard Investigative Service; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is providing significant assistance and technical expertise.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Mark A. Williams, Joseph O. Johns and Diana Kwok of the Environmental and Community Safety Crimes Section.
In September, the National Transportation Safety Board released more than 1,600 pages of investigation information related to the dive boat fire. The documents revealed the moments leading up to and following the boat catching fire, including insight from crew members.
In October, the NTSB determined that the probable cause of the boat fire tragedy was the failure of Truth Aquatics Inc., which owned and operated the vessel, to provide effective oversight of the vessel and crew member operations.
The board could not determine the origin area or cause of the fire from wreckage examination. But through interviews with the five surviving crew members, examination of the similar vessel Vision and statements from previous passengers, investigators were able to predict what the origin and cause of the fire relied on.
Board members proposed 18 findings as a result of the investigation.
The key findings of what led to the fire included the lack of a requirement of a roving patrol that was codified in U.S. law for nearly 150 years, the lack of the U.S. Coast Guard regulatory requirement for smoke detection in all accommodations spaces and inadequate emergency escape arrangements from the bunkroom.
These reasons and more allowed for a fire of an unknown cause to grow undetected in the vicinity of the aft salon on the main deck, preventing escape and contributing to the high loss of life, according to the NTSB.
Staff also determined the emergency response to the accident was appropriate, but unable to prevent the loss of life.
Constructed in 1981, Conception’s purpose was to take recreational divers on day and overnight trips, and was constructed with fiberglass laid over plywood. The vessel was made before 1996, missing a new set of regulations as it was classified as an “existing vessel.”
The fire burned without intervention for around an hour and 40 minutes, while passengers and crew members were asleep, sinking Conception in about 61 feet of water in the inverted position.
The potential ignition sources of the aft portion of the salon included electrical systems, charging batteries and devices, improperly discarded smoking materials or some other unknown ignition source.
It was indicated from interviews that it was a common practice of Truth Aquatics vessels to recharge 15 to 20 battery-powered devices such as flashlights and cameras overnight in the salon department, completely unattended.
Eleven months prior to the Conception tragedy, another Truth Aquatics boat, Vision, had experienced a fire from unattended lithium ion batteries being charged, but two passengers quickly extinguished the fire.
With these factors in mind, board member Jennifer Homendy said the circumstances that allowed for the accidental fire did not rely on what actually started it.
“Some people may walk away and say, ‘Well, I wish I knew what the ignition source was,’” she stated during the October hearing. “But the key here is that the focus should be on the conditions that were present that allowed the fire to go undetected and to grow to a point where it prevented the evacuation.”
One condition she was referring to was the lack of interconnected smoke detectors (including lack of any detectors in the room in which the fire ignited), which board members said would have awakened the passengers and crew members who were all asleep at the time.
Another condition was that the two means of escape from the bunk room where the passengers slept both led through the same space, and they were insufficient for rapid evacuation. In addition, staff pointed out flaws in the egress configuration, which would have required all 39 individuals on board to climb a ladder, crawl to the center of a bunk, stand and pull up through the hatch.
“The configuration would have been challenging for anyone to navigate without practice, and further would have been extremely difficult to evacuate an injured or unconscious person through the hatch,” said Marcel Muise, the survival factors group chairman.
Andrew Ehlers, the operations group chairman, found that the requirement for a roving watch was underscored in the vessel’s certification.
“Had a crew member been awake, it was likely he or she would have discovered the fire at an early stage,” he said. “The absence of the required roving patrol delayed detection and allowed for the growth of the fire and directly led to the high number of fatalities in the accident.”
It was also determined that crew’s training lacked in critical areas, including many examples of lack of knowledge of emergency duties.
Three crew members had not even been involved in a fire drill since they’d been working on board. On top of that, in-person safety briefings with crew members were not completed until passengers had already slept on board.
“It was clear that the company was not verifying that the newest crew members understood or even read the policies,” said Carrie Bell, the human factors group chairman.
She referred to this failure as a “normalization of deviance,” desensitizing crew members to non-standard practices, and creating a poor overall safety culture and lack of involvement.
Many more seemingly minor oversights were found to contribute to the Conception fire, including a regulation that a PA system be audible in passenger accommodation spaces. Staff did not find the status of the PA system on Conception, but did find that the PA system on Vision had been disconnected in the passenger accommodation spaces “so that people sleeping in the area would not be bothered by routine announcements.”
This led staff to believe the same could have occurred on Conception, another alert system that could have awakened the sleeping passengers.
Staff found that weather and sea conditions were not factors in the accident, the use of alcohol or other drugs by the deck crew likely was not a factor, the exact timing of ignition cannot be determined and the U.S. Coast Guard does not have an effective means of verifying compliance with roving patrol requirements for small passenger vessels.
Most notably, finding No. 17 stated, “Had the safety management system been implemented, Truth Aquatics could have identified unsafe practices and fire risks on Conception and taken corrective action before the accident occurred.”
The NTSB made 10 new safety recommendations, seven for the U.S. Coast Guard, two for the Passenger Vessel Association, the Sport Fishing Association of California and the National Association of Charter Operators, and one reiteration of a previous recommendation.
Each recommendation addresses each oversight found in the Conception investigation, and they reiterated their previous recommendation for the U.S. Coast Guard to require safety management systems for all passenger vessels, an action Robert Sumwalde, the chairman of the NTSB, said is long overdue.
“The Congress mandated that 10 years ago. The NTSB recommended it eight years ago. It’s past time to act,” he said during the October hearing. “The recommendations that we’ve issued today, if implemented, and that’s the key, if implemented, would reduce the risk of future passenger fires going undetected. It would ensure that escape routes exit to different spaces, improving the chances for survival for passengers and crew.
“On behalf of all my colleagues on the board and the entire NTSB, we want to give our sincere condolences to the family and friends of those who have been lost in this tragedy,” Mr. Sumwalde said. “The reason that we are meeting and the whole reason for the NTSB safety investigations is to learn from this accident to prevent similar tragedies in the future.”
In January, some nine months before the NTSB held its hearing into the matter, four families of the victims of the boat tragedy filed a lawsuit against Truth Aquatics.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on behalf of the families of: Sanjeeri Deopujari, 31; Kaustbh Nirmal, 33; Yulia Krashennaya, 40; and Alexandra “Allie” Kurtz, 26. Attorneys Robert Glassman of L.A.-based law firm Panish, Shea, & Boyle and Robert Mongeluzzi and Jeffrey Goodman, maritime lawyers from Philadelphia-based Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky, announced the claims in a joint press conference. The attorneys said the filings are “the most comprehensive to date and assert that the massive inferno – likely caused by an unsafe lithium-ion-battery charging station – was foreseeable and preventable in part due to the failing to have a mandatory overnight safety watch.”
The claims allege the boat fire was started in or near the galley, which is where the lithium-ion battery charging stations would have been located.
Three days after the blaze broke out, attorneys for Truth Aquatics, owner Glen Fritzler and his wife Dana, filed a petition in federal court seeking to fend off any civil actions. The petition cited an 1851 maritime law that could limit the owners’ liability.
The lawsuit announced in January was filed in response to the petition. Other similar claims were previously filed. The widow of a passenger and a crew member who broke his leg getting to safety have filed claims challenging the liability petition.
“The defendants killed these victims by breaking the law and failing to have a roving night watch whose job was to prevent the very catastrophe that occurred,” Mr. Mongeluzzi said at the time. “Rather than mourn those whose lives they took with their failure to obey the law, they lawyered up and mercilessly filed an action to limit their liability before many of the bodies of these victims were even recovered. We will demolish their frivolous limitation of liability claim and hold them accountable for the outrageous harm they have caused.”