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Captain of Conception dive boat indicted on 34 manslaughter counts in deadly fire

The fire that erupted on the 75-foot boat in 2019 killed 33 passengers and one crew member.
Image: The burned hull of the Conception is hoisted from the water off Santa Cruz Island, Calif., on Sept. 12, 2019.
The burned hull of the Conception is hoisted from the water off Santa Cruz Island, Calif., on Sept. 12, 2019.Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via AP file

The captain of the California dive boat that caught fire in 2019, killing 34 people on a weekend trip, has been indicted on seaman's manslaughter counts, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Thirty-three passengers and one crew member died after the fire erupted on the Conception, a 75-foot diving vessel, early Sept. 2 off the coast of Santa Cruz Island.

The captain, Jerry Nehl Boylan, who was one of five crew members who escaped, was indicted by a grand jury Tuesday on 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter, the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles said in a statement.

The indictment alleges misconduct and negligence, including the failure to have a night watch or patrol — something that federal transportation safety officials had also highlighted in October.

The National Transportation Safety Board had also faulted the U.S. Coast Guard for not enforcing the requirement to post a roving night watchman.

The 34 people who died were sleeping below deck when the fire occurred. They were on a Labor Day weekend dive trip. Among the dead were five members of one family and two charter school students.

Boylan, 67, of Santa Barbara, is expected to self-surrender in the coming weeks, the U.S. attorney's office said. In addition to the failure to have a night watch, the indictment also alleges failures in sufficient crew training and fire drills, prosecutors said.

The boat sank, and the exact cause of the fire has not been determined.

NTSB member Jennifer Homendy said in October that regardless of the source of ignition, the focus should be on the conditions present "that allowed the fire to go undetected and to grow to a point where it prevented the evacuation."

Emailed requests to federal public defenders representing Boylan were not immediately returned Tuesday evening.

"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 bunkroom with no means of escape," Nick Hanna, U.S. attorney for the central district of California, said in a statement.

The NTSB has blamed the fire on what it said was the failure of Truth Aquatics, Inc. to provide effective oversight, including a roving patrol.

All the deaths were attributed to smoke inhalation. The federal transportation safety board's report concludes that most were awake but could not escape before being overcome.

The Coast Guard was called about the fire at around 3:14 a.m. that morning.

The five crewmembers who survived were asleep in an upper deck area, and those who died were in the bunkroom below. Those crewmembers tried to get help those in the bunkroom but were blocked from reaching it by fire and thick smoke.

There were smoke detectors aboard, but there were none in the main deck salon above the bunkroom, and that's where crewmembers reported seeing the fire, the NTSB found. A fire there would have been well involved before the smoke set off the detectors, it said.

Among its recommendations, the NTSB called for smoke detectors in all passenger areas, safer exits in case of fire, and that the Coast Guard create an inspection program to ensure that night patrols are being conducted.