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The commercial dive boat Conception at sunrise prior to sinking, September 2, 2019. (Source: Ventura County Fire Department)

The commercial dive boat Conception at sunrise prior to sinking, September 2, 2019. (Source: Ventura County Fire Department)

Captain of Dive Boat Found Guilty of ‘Seaman’s Manslaughter’ in California Tragedy

Mike Schuler
Total Views: 6807
November 7, 2023

In a late afternoon verdict on Monday, Jerry Nehl Boylan, the captain of the Conception dive boat, was found guilty by a jury of one count of misconduct or neglect of ship officer, commonly known as “seaman’s manslaughter.”

The tragic incident occurred on Labor Day in 2019 near Santa Cruz Island, resulting in the deaths of 33 passengers and one crew member who had been sleeping below deck.

The Conception, a 75-foot passenger vessel, caught fire while anchored in Platt’s Harbor during a dive trip. The fire quickly engulfed the boat, leading to its sinking and the loss of 34 lives. Five crew members, including Boylan, managed to escape and survive.

During the trial, evidence revealed that Boylan, as the captain, committed a series of failures that contributed to the disaster. The jury found that his misconduct, gross negligence, and inattention to his duties resulted in the deaths of the victims. These failures included abandoning the ship instead of rescuing passengers and failing to provide proper training, diligence, and life-saving measures.

Photo of Conception before the fire and subsequent sinking. Photo courtesy NTSB
Photo of Conception before the fire and subsequent sinking. Photo courtesy NTSB

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the owner and operator of the Conception, Truth Aquatics, Inc., failed to provide effective oversight of the vessel and its crew operations. This lack of oversight allowed an undetected fire to grow, ultimately causing the tragedy. The NTSB also highlighted the absence of smoke detection in all accommodation spaces and inadequate emergency escape arrangements as contributing factors to the high loss of life.

Boylan, who was responsible for the safety and security of the vessel, its passengers, and its crew, was found guilty for his failures. These included the absence of a night watch or roving patrol, insufficient fire drills and crew training, and the failure to provide firefighting instructions or use available firefighting equipment.

In his defense, Boylan’s lawyers blamed the vessel’s owner for not requiring night patrols or fire training. They also argued that he broadcasted a distress call before jumping overboard when he believed he wouldn’t survive.

United States Attorney Martin Estrada said he hopes that the verdict brings solace and closure to the loved ones of the victims.

“This ship captain’s unpardonable cowardice led to the deaths of 34 lives on Labor Day 2019. As the jury found, this tragedy could have been avoided had Mr. Boylan simply performed the duties he was entrusted to carry out,” said Estrada.

Donald Alway, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, emphasized the importance of proper training and diligence.

“Let this tragedy be a lesson to anyone who commands a boat with vulnerable passengers that proper training, diligence and life saving measures – when called for – are necessary to safeguard those left in one’s charge,” Alway said.

Coast Guard Investigative Service Director Jeremy Gauthier called the guilty verdict a testament to seeking justice and honoring the memory of those lost. He praised the collaborative efforts of multiple agencies in uncovering critical evidence.

The sentencing hearing for Boylan is scheduled for February 8, 2024. He is currently free on a $75,000 bond.

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