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Captain indicted on new charge in boat fire that killed 34 off Southern California

A fire erupted on the Conception during a Labor Day weekend dive trip in 2019.
fire deadly tour boat
The dive boat Conception is engulfed in flames off Southern California on Sept. 2, 2019.Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP file

The captain of a California dive boat that caught fire in 2019, killing 34 people on board, was indicted Tuesday on a new count of negligence in the disaster.

Jerry Nehl Boylan, 68, was indicted by a grand jury on one count of misconduct or neglect of ship officer, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles said.

The new indictment comes a month after a judge threw out an earlier indictment because it did not allege gross negligence in the charging document.

The case was dismissed without prejudice, which means it could be refiled, according to court documents. The new indictment does allege gross negligence.

Federal public defenders listed as representing Boylan did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday night.

The charge carries a maximum of 10 years in prison, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

Prosecutors say Boylan failed to have a night watch and did not try to fight the fire, among other missteps. The blaze erupted in the early morning hours of Sept. 2 as the ship was anchored off Santa Cruz Island.

Tuesday’s indictment also alleges that Boylan was the first to abandon ship and cites “his failure to perform any lifesaving or firefighting activities whatsoever at the time of the fire.”

Boylan’s defense attorneys have said in previous filings that Boylan made a distress call but was overcome by smoke and jumped into the water. He swam to the rear but the deckhouse and the escape exit for passengers “was fully engulfed,” they said.

Thirty-three passengers and one crew member died. They were sleeping below deck when the fire broke out, officials said. Boylan and four other crew members survived.

Federal investigators never determined the cause of the fire because the boat burned and sank.

But the National Transportation Safety Board faulted the owner and operator of the Conception for a lack of oversight and said a lack of a roving patrol allowed the fire to grow and led to so many deaths.

The NTSB also faulted the Coast Guard for not enforcing roving patrols and said the Coast Guard needs to verify that boat operators are conducting patrols as required.

All 34 people died of smoke inhalation, the NTSB has said. There were two exits from the berthing area, and both “led to the fire- and smoke-filled enclosed area above,” it said.

Boylan was initially indicted in December 2020 on 34 counts of what the indictment called "seaman’s manslaughter," which is a term sometimes used to refer to the misconduct or neglect of ship officers statute.

But in July prosecutors filed a superseding indictment that charged one count that covered the deaths of all 34 people, according to court documents.

When U.S. District Judge George H. Wu dismissed the indictment in September, he did so after Boylan’s attorneys argued an allegation of gross negligence was a required element of the crime. Wu wrote he found the argument convincing.

After the fire, Congress in 2020 required that the Coast Guard adopt NTSB regulations as part of a federal law that dealt in part with authorization of funding, according to the transportation agency.

The Coast Guard announced new safety rules in January, The Associated Press reported at the time.