A scuba dive boat captain was convicted of gross negligence on Monday after a vessel he was commanding in California in 2019 caught fire, resulting in the deaths of 34 people, the deadliest maritime disaster in recent U.S. history, according to The Associated Press.
Jerry Boylan, 69, was found guilty of one count of misconduct or neglect of ship officer, a pre-Civil War statute colloquially known as seaman’s manslaughter that was designed to hold steamboat captains and crew responsible for maritime disasters.
Boylan was in command of the Conception when it caught fire before dawn on Sept. 2, 2019, while it was anchored off Santa Cruz Island. It was on the final day of a three-day excursion when tragedy struck.
The Labor Day fire trapped 33 passengers and a crew member in a windowless bunk room below deck as the stairs and the escape hatch were blocked by flames.
Prosecutors said Boylan, who had been a boat captain for 34 years, was negligent in failing to appoint a roving night watch or train his crew in fire safety, according to The Los Angeles Times.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said the lack of the roving watch meant the fire was able to spread undetected across the 75-foot boat.
When the fire broke out, chaos ensued among Boylan’s inexperienced, ill-trained crew. In the bedlam, a crew member twice ran right by a 50-foot fire hose, prosecutors said.
Boylan had been asleep when the blaze erupted but woke up and called in a mayday before jumping overboard — actions that prosecutors said amounted to abandoning his ship. Four crew members also abandoned the ship and survived.
The exact cause of the blaze remains undetermined, although it may have originated in a trash can.
The boat captain is the only person to face criminal charges connected to the fire and could face 10 years in prison when he is sentenced on Feb. 8. His public defenders declined to comment as they left the courthouse.
U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said Boylan had “failed, utterly failed” in his duties.
“The captain is responsible for everything that happens on the ship, including, most importantly, the safety of everyone on board that ship,” Estrada told reporters.
The Conception had been anchored off Santa Cruz Island, 25 miles south of Santa Barbara, when it caught fire before sinking less than 100 feet from shore.
Among the dead was the deckhand, who had landed her dream job; an environmental scientist who did research in Antarctica; a globe-trotting couple; a Singaporean data scientist and a family of three sisters, their father and his wife.
After the verdict, the families wept and embraced in the hallway saying “We did it” and “We got it,” The Los Angeles Times reported.
“We’ve waited four years for the guilty verdict, and it’s just a feeling like we can move forward a little with our lives,” said Susana Rosas, 65, who lost three daughters and her ex-husband in the fire.
Boylan’s attorneys sought to pin blame on boat owner, Glen Fritzler, who with his wife owns Truth Aquatics Inc., which operated the Conception and two other scuba dive boats, often around the Channel Islands.
They argued that Fritzler was responsible for failing to train the crew in firefighting and other safety measures, as well as creating a lax seafaring culture in which no captain who worked for him posted a roving watch.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.