A permanent memorial to the 34 victims of the Conception dive boat fire sits on the Santa Barbara Harbor breakwater.
A permanent memorial to the 34 victims of the Conception dive boat fire sits on the Santa Barbara Harbor breakwater. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk file photo)

The criminal trial started this week for the captain on duty during the deadly Conception dive boat fire near Santa Cruz Island.

Thirty-four people were killed when the boat caught fire and sank on Sept. 2, 2019, during a multi-day diving trip. All of the victims were in the bunk room below deck and were unable to escape the fire, according to investigators.

The Conception’s captain, Jerry Boylan, 70, is charged with misconduct or neglect of a ship officer, and faces 10 years in prison if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

In opening statements for the U.S. District Court trial in Los Angeles, prosecutors blamed Boylan for the safety failures, and the defense attorney cast blame at the ship’s owner, Glen Fritzler of Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics.

Prosecutor Matthew O’Brien said Boylan didn’t properly train his crew in firefighting, and was the first one to jump overboard after making a mayday radio call, according to The Los Angeles Times.

He told his crew to abandon ship rather than try fighting the fire, O’Brien said.

Public defender Georgina Wakefield said Fritzler trained Boylan, and roving patrols weren’t used on any Truth Aquatics vessels.

She said Boylan and another crew member reboarded the boat to try and help passengers, but the fire hoses and other equipment were on fire, the LA Times reported.

Safety Failures to Blame for Deadly Blaze, Investigators Determined

Investigators found that Boylan’s failure to have a roving patrol, as required, allowed the fire to grow undetected.

The failure of effective oversight of the vessel operations was the probable cause of the disaster, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded. The specific cause of the fire was undetermined at the time, but the ATF reportedly traced it to a plastic trash can.

Crew members were all asleep at the time of the fire. One of them was awakened by a noise, saw the fire, and alerted the others.

Boylan and the crew members on that upper third deck by the wheelhouse survived the fire by jumping into the water. The one crew member in the bunk room with passengers died in the blaze.  

The Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Bureau concluded all of the victims died from smoke inhalation, and were possibly unaware of the fire. But cellphone videos surfaced later showing that passengers were awake and trying to escape the flames and smoke.  

In the aftermath of the disaster, the Coast Guard and federal legislators issued new safety rules for passenger vessels, including the requirement of smoke detectors in all areas. The Conception did not have smoke detectors in the common area where the fire started, and the bunk room smoke detectors were not connected to the wheelhouse.

The Conception’s bunk room had stairs and an emergency hatch that led to the same room, the salon/galley area that was on fire.

Coast Guard rules enacted last year require multiple avenues of escape, crew firefighter training, devices to monitor whether crews are doing the required roving patrols, and protocols for handling flammable items such as rechargable batteries.

Pending Civil Legal Action

Truth Aquatics filed court documents to limit its liability in the disaster. It also sold the fleet’s sister vessels, the Truth and the Vision, to Channel Islands Expeditions. They still operate out of the Santa Barbara Harbor.

Family members of the dive boat fire victims have filed wrongful death lawsuits in federal court and a civil case against the U.S. Coast Guard, alleging the agency repeatedly certified “a ‘fire trap’ small passenger vessel that was riddled with blatant life-safety violations.”

They have also filed suit against Truth Aquatics.