The captain of the Santa Barbara-based Conception dive boat was indicted on 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter Tuesday, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
A federal grand jury handed down the indictments against Jerry Nehl Boylan, 67, who was in charge of the vessel when it caught fire and sank on Sept. 2, 2019, killing 34 people trapped in a below-deck bunk room.
“The indictment alleges that Boylan caused the deaths of 33 passengers and one crew member ‘by his misconduct, negligence, and inattention to his duties,’” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Tuesday.
Boylan is specifically accused of failing to have a night watch or roving patrol at the time of the fire, as required by the U.S. Coast Guard; failing to conduct sufficient fire drills; and failing to to conduct sufficient crew training.
Boylan has worked for the boat’s owner, Truth Aquatics, since 1983, and became a captain there in 1985, according to the company website.
“Federal prosecutors informed Boylan’s attorneys of the indictment after it was filed, and the defendant is expected to self-surrender to federal authorities in the coming weeks,” according to federal prosecutors.
Each charge of seaman’s manslaughter has a potential maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison.
“As a result of the alleged failures of Captain Boylan to follow well-established safety rules, a pleasant holiday dive trip turned into a hellish nightmare as passengers and one crew member found themselves trapped in a fiery bunk room with no means of escape,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna, with the Central District of California, in a statement.
“The loss of life that day will forever impact the families of the 34 victims. With this indictment and our commitment to vigorously prosecute the case, we seek a small measure of justice for the victims and their loved ones.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said there is an ongoing investigation into the Conception dive boat disaster conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Coast Guard;, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The criminal case against Boylan is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. attorneys Mark A. Williams, Joseph O. Johns and Diana Kwok.
There have been no other criminal indictments related to the disaster to date.
The Conception was one of three vessels in the Truth Aquatics fleet, which operates out of Sea Landing at the Santa Barbara Harbor.
The boat was anchored at Platt’s Harbor off the coast of Santa Cruz Island during a scuba diving trip when it caught fire in the early morning hours of Sept. 2.
The blaze spread and trapped everyone in the bunk room below deck, since the stairs and escape hatch both led to a room which 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 safety officials concluded that the failure of Truth Aquatics to provide effective safety oversight was the probable cause of the vessel catching fire and sinking.
The National Transportation Safety Board found that the failings included the company’s decision not to have a roving patrol, as required.
That failure, the board decided, allowed a fire of unknown cause to grow undetected.
Investigative reports released about 10 days after the fire revealed every crew member was asleep at the time the fire broke out, and documents released recently said that a galleyhand saw sparks when he plugged in his phone before going to sleep the morning of the fire.
The cause of the fire itself is unknown, but there has been scrutiny on the vessel’s area for charging electronic devices (such as phones, underwater cameras, lights).
The wreckage of the Conception was recovered from the seafloor and examined as part of the investigations being conducted by multiple agencies.
Investigators served search warrants to Truth Aquatics shortly after the fire, and toured the company’s other two vessels, including the one with a similar floor plan to the Conception.
Families of the victims have filed wrongful death lawsuits against Truth Aquatics, and a surviving crew member has sued for negligence and damages, according to court records.