LOS ANGELES — A federal jury on Monday found a scuba dive boat captain was criminally negligent in the deaths of 34 people killed in a fire aboard the vessel in 2019, the deadliest maritime disaster in recent U.S. history.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles confirmed that Jerry Boylan was found guilty of one count of misconduct or neglect of ship officer. The charge, known as "seaman's manslaughter," is a pre-Civil War statute designed to hold steamboat captains and crew accountable for maritime disasters. Out of all involved, Boylan was the sole person to face criminal charges connected to the fire.
When Boylan is sentenced on February 8th, he could face up to 10 years behind bars.
Justice Delivered, Grief Persists
Relatives of those killed embraced one another and shed tears outside the courtroom following the reading of the verdict. They expressed their gratitude to the FBI case agent who spearheaded the extensive investigation.
The verdict arrives more than four years after the tragedy occurred on September 2, 2019. This devastating event spurred significant changes to maritime regulations, congressional reform, and numerous civil lawsuits.
The Conception, which was anchored off the Channel Islands, located 25 miles south of Santa Barbara, burst into flames just before dawn on the final day of a three-day excursion. Tragically, it sank just shy of 100 feet from shore.
Thirty-three passengers and one crew member were trapped below deck in a bunkroom and perished in the fire. Among the victims were a deckhand who had recently secured her dream job, an environmental scientist renowned for her research in Antarctica, an adventurous globetrotting couple, a talented Singaporean data scientist, and a loving family comprised of three sisters, their father, and his wife.
Boylan was the first to abandon ship, leaping overboard in a bid to save his life. Fortunately, four crew members followed suit and also survived.
Although the exact cause of the inferno remains unknown, both the prosecution and defense sought to attribute responsibility throughout the trial.
Boat Fire Investigation Reveals Blame Game
The recent trial regarding the boat fire incident has shed light on the lack of safety measures and proper training aboard the vessel. According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, the boat's owner, Glen Fritzler, failed to train the crew in firefighting and other safety protocols.
Boat captain Boylan, who was on trial, attempted to shift the blame onto Fritzler, claiming that he was responsible for the lax seafaring culture on board. Boylan's defense argued that none of the captains employed by Fritzler enforced a roving night watch, ultimately contributing to the spreading of the fire unnoticed.
Throughout the trial, the victims' families attended proceedings, anxiously watching a heart-wrenching 24-second cellphone video capturing their loved ones' final moments. U.S. District Court Judge George Wu specifically cautioned the families against showing any emotional displays in the courtroom.
While the criminal trial may have come to a close, several civil lawsuits are still ongoing. Truth Aquatics, the owner of the ill-fated boat, filed a lawsuit under a maritime law provision that limits their liability to the value of the remains of the vessel. This legal maneuver has been used successfully in past cases involving maritime tragedies such as the Titanic.
Additionally, victims' families have also filed lawsuits against the Coast Guard, accusing them of inadequate enforcement of safety regulations including the requirement for a roving night watch.
As the legal battle continues, it is clear that accountability and improved safety measures are at the forefront of this tragedy.