Captain of Ill-Fated Dive Boat Indicted on 34 Counts of Manslaughter

dive boat
The wreck of the Conception shortly before her sinking, September 2 (Ventura County Fire Dept.)

Published Dec 2, 2020 3:58 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Tuesday, a federal grand jury indicted the captain of the ill-fated dive boat Conception on 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter - one for each passenger and crewmember who died in a fire aboard the vessel in September 2019.

The Conception was a wood-and-fiberglass dive boat that was home ported in Santa Barbara, California. During a Labor Day weekend dive trip last year, the boat carried 33 passengers and six crew members, including Boylan. In the early morning hours of September 2, 2019, a fire broke out while the boat was anchored in Platt’s Harbor near Santa Cruz Island. The boat burned to the waterline and sank, killing all 34 people who had been resting belowdecks. Five crewmembers, including the captain, were quartered abovedecks and were able to escape.

The proximate cause of the casualty has not been determined, but the NTSB found evidence that it may have been "the electrical distribution system of the vessel, unattended batteries being charged, improperly discarded smoking materials, or another undetermined ignition source." 

Jerry Nehl Boylan, 67, was the captain and master of the vessel at the time of the casualty, and prosecutors assert that he “was responsible for the safety and security of the vessel, its crew, and its passengers.” The indictment alleges that Boylan caused the deaths of 33 passengers and one crewmember “by his misconduct, negligence, and inattention to his duties.” It cites three specific safety violations:

  • failing to have a night watch or roving patrol, which was required by the CFR and the vessel's COI
  • failing to conduct sufficient fire drills, also required by the CFR
  • failing to conduct sufficient crew training, also required by the CFR.

In multiple witness interviews, former crewmembers told the staff of the NTSB's separate (non-criminal) investigation that they did not recall a designated watch or roving patrol on board the Conception on prior voyages. The captain of another vessel in the operator's fleet, the Vision, told NTSB that he believed that having one crewmember sleep in the same compartment as the passengers "somehow fulfilled" the federal requirement for a roving watch. (NTSB's investigations are intended for fact-finding and safety only, and its findings are separate from the Justice Department's criminal inquiry.)

“Nothing will ever replace the 34 lives that were lost in the Conception tragedy,” said Special Agent in Charge Kelly S. Hoyle of the Coast Guard Investigative Service – Pacific Region. “Our hearts remain with the families as the Coast Guard continues to work with our partners in the Department of Justice on this investigation.”

The CGIS, FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives all contributed their expertise and resources to the post-fire investigation. 

Each charge of seaman’s manslaughter carries a maximum penalty of 10 years, and if convicted, Boylan could face life in prison.