A federal grand jury indicted a Santa Barbara-based dive boat captain on a charge of misconduct or neglect of a ship officer, accusing him of multiple failures in the 2019 fire that led to the deaths of 34 people.
The one-count indictment named Jerry Nehl Boylan, 68, of Santa Barbara, alleging he “acted with a wanton or reckless disregard for human life by engaging in misconduct, gross negligence, and inattention to his duties on such vessel.”
The Conception was one of three vessels in the Truth Aquatics fleet, which operated out of Sea Landing at the Santa Barbara Harbor.
The 75-foot boat, made of wood and fiberglass, was anchored at Platt’s Harbor off the northern coast of Santa Cruz Island in the early morning hours of Sept. 2, 2019, during a scuba diving trip when it caught fire.
The blaze spread rapidly and trapped everyone in the bunk room below deck, since the stairs and escape hatch both led to a room that was engulfed in flames, according to investigators.
Five crew members, including Boylan, were asleep in their bunks in the wheelhouse and upper deck at the time of the fire. When they woke up, they found a fire they could not extinguish, and they could not reach the people below deck, they told investigators.
The five crew members were able to escape the vessel and get help from a boat anchored nearby.
The 33 passengers and one crew member in the bunk room died of smoke inhalation, according to the Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Bureau.
Federal officials said the new indictment reinstates the charge against Boylan after a federal judge in early September dismissed the previous indictment, for “seaman’s manslaughter,” because it did not allege gross negligence.
The charge contained in the new indictment alleges that Boylan — who “was responsible for the safety and security of the vessel, its crew, and its passengers” — failed his responsibilities in several ways, including by:
» failing to have a night watch or roving patrol
» failing to conduct sufficient fire drills and crew training
» failing to provide firefighting instructions or directions to crewmembers after the fire started
» failing to use firefighting equipment, including a fire ax and fire extinguisher that were next to him in the wheelhouse, to fight the fire or attempt to rescue trapped passengers
» failing to “to perform any lifesaving or firefighting activities whatsoever at the time of the fire, even though he was uninjured”
» failing to use the boat’s public address system to warn passengers and crewmembers about the fire
» becoming the first crewmember to abandon ship “even though 33 passengers and one crewmember were still alive and trapped below deck in the vessel’s bunkroom and in need of assistance to escape”
» ordering other crew members to abandon the ship instead of instructing them to fight the fire or engage in other lifesaving activities
Boylan will be directed to appear in the coming weeks in U.S. District Court for an arraignment on the new indictment, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The charge of misconduct or neglect of ship officer carries a statutory maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.