Conception Boat Captain Pleads Not Guilty in Deadly Fire

Conception Boat Captain Pleads Not Guilty in Deadly Fire title=
The Conception Vessel (Photo: Truth Aquatics)
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By edhat staff

Conception Captain Jerry Boylan pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to manslaughter charges stemming from a fire that killed 34 people on board.

The scuba diving boat caught fire and sank off the coast of Platts Harbor in the Channel Islands on September 2, 2019. Thirty-three passengers and one crew member were asleep below deck when the fire broke out. They were unable to escape and died.

Four crew members and Captain Boylan, 67, who were sleeping on the upper areas of the boat survived in what's been described as one of the deadliest maritime disasters in recent U.S. history.

Boylan was indicted in December and arraigned in a Los Angeles federal court on Tuesday for 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter, each count carrying a potential 10-year prison term.

Prosecutors alleged Boylan failed to follow safety protocols, failed to train his crew, conduct fire drills, and failed to have a roving night watchman on the boat when the fire sparked. He was accused of “misconduct, negligence and inattention.”

“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,” said United States Attorney Nick Hanna in the indictment. “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.”

Boylan appeared in front of Judge Jean Rosenbluth by video and reportedly spoke very little with short answers and pleading "not guilty." He is expected to be released on a $250,000 bond, reports KTLA.

In October of 2020, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) stated the fire was preventable and Truth Aquatics Inc., the company that owns the Conception and other dive boats, failed to ensure the safety of its passengers.

Truth Aquatics and its owners, Glen and Dana Fritzler, have not been charged with a crime but they have sued in federal court under a provision in maritime law to avoid payouts to the families of the victims. Although, the victim's families have filed claims against the owners and the company.

This past February the U.S. Coast Guard officially updated Boat Safety Regulations that require all small passenger vessels to have interconnected fire alarms, smoke detectors, a roving watch, safety management systems, and two means of escape for passengers.


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Yeti Feb 17, 2021 06:39 PM
Conception Boat Captain Pleads Not Guilty in Deadly Fire

It is truly a tragedy for all. The captain could be in for a real "boat load" of trouble on this one. According to Wikipedia, typical sentence for Maritime Manslaughter is 10 years. times 34 counts. This could easily translate into life in jail. Lets hope that the owners, Glen and Dana Fritzler, do not escape liability on this one. it is real brave of them to try to worm out of it. Ultimately, they are solely responsible for who they hire and train to take on the responsibility of running the boat and they have obviously made their own decisions regarding emergency escape routes, training of staff and safety equipment that turned out to be completely useless when needed. Very sad.

BDM 1868 Feb 17, 2021 07:12 PM
Conception Boat Captain Pleads Not Guilty in Deadly Fire

Yeti, That boat passed coastguard inspections year after year and if it didn't it could not leave the harbor. It is vary tragic for all involved. Glen Fritzler always maintained his boats. This was an accident no one saw coming. Should the battery makers be held accountable also? The suspected cause of the fire.

Alexblue Feb 18, 2021 11:06 AM
Conception Boat Captain Pleads Not Guilty in Deadly Fire

BDM—you’re simply wrong. The boat passing inspection doesn’t absolve a captain for their subsequent actions. Standard practice by a company and its captains in direct contravention of the crystal clear law does not absolve a Captain for breaking the law. I’m a licensed captain, if I break the law while operating my vessel then the responsibility is mine and mine alone. The facts as per the NTSB complete report regarding the absence of a roving g night watch in violation of the law are crystal clear. It is tragic for everyone, including the Captain, but there’s no way around the fact that there was no roving night watch, a legal requirement in place for hundreds of years in marine law PRECISELY because no one can predict what type of accident may occur, and having someone on watch and awake gives the crew and passengers more time to react to an accident and a better shot at surviving it. People who are saying that it was an accident that couldn’t have been predicted, whether or not they are right, are ignorant of the fact that the law is clear and it exists for a reason.

Alexblue Feb 20, 2021 12:26 PM
Conception Boat Captain Pleads Not Guilty in Deadly Fire

Ahchoo—I get that, but they may be, don’t you think? I don’t know why they are defending the owners on this—good people sometimes cut corners or pass on bad practices—their company, their training, their responsibility to some extent, right?

ChemicalSuperFreak Feb 17, 2021 07:46 PM
Conception Boat Captain Pleads Not Guilty in Deadly Fire

As someone who has done dozens of multi-day dives on the Vision and Conception (day dive only on the Truth), I have some perspectives to share.

First, I've seen Jerry captain numerous time and he always took safety very seriously. Once a diver smelled of alcohol one morning (from too much partying the night before) and Jerry said he would not be able to dive for the entire day---out of an abundance of caution. That was the right decision.

There were never roaming night watches when at anchor overnight, though many nights the crew was up while the boats transited 10-12 hours from Santa Barbara harbor to Santa Barbara Island, for example. If a watch was required and all captains/crew/owners knew this, then the failure to have one was part of the culture at Truth Aquatics and more people than Jerry should be held to account.

The safety briefing in the galley never mentioned the escape hatch from the bunk room to the galley in detail, if at all. I knew these hatches existed because I got that bunk one time. However, many passengers half-awake for the morning briefing were probably oblivious. Again, it was the same briefing by all the captains on all the boats and not unique to Jerry or the Conception. Not sure it would have helped in this case, as the entire galley was in flames and it's about 6-10 feet from the hatch to the exterior rear deck.

I had made mention, many, many, times to other divers and friends about the charging of electronics on those vessels. The galley was lit up like a Christmas tree at all times on all boats, particularly on multi-day trips when people bring laptops, tablets, etc. for entertainment or to process their day's photos. When those vessels were designed I doubt anyone foresaw the high demand for charging that is so commonplace today. The galley is also a wetsuit zone, so there's literally water, wet towels and soaking passengers inches from electrical outlets overstuffed with adapters. All of this should have been addressed by the owners. In fact, there's a form you can fill out with suggestions/comments, and I'd be shocked if some passenger didn't bring up these concerns in writing at some point.

In the end this tragedy happened while Jerry was captaining the Conception and he's paying a price, but it could have easily happened to the secondary crew, or on one of the other vessels. There was clearly a shared responsibility for poor practices that made this tragedy possible, and I hope this point is not lost however this turns out.

a-1613667315 Feb 18, 2021 08:55 AM
Conception Boat Captain Pleads Not Guilty in Deadly Fire

ALEX, the content of another comment does not absolve you of your own nasty comment in any way. It was not just CHEM who was put off by your insensitive and irresponsible words. Please drop it.

Alexblue Feb 18, 2021 10:59 AM
Conception Boat Captain Pleads Not Guilty in Deadly Fire

8:55. So how was the comment “nasty”? You don’t like that I think the guy’s life is effectively over and that if that was me I’d kill myself? I’m putting myself in the captain’s shoes. Beyond that, you want to end a conversation by piling in to it and name calling? Let’s be honest, if you really want me to drop it you wouldn’t have jumped in to fan the flames. You want to continue it? By all means, keep trying to scold me.

Alexblue Feb 19, 2021 04:48 PM
Conception Boat Captain Pleads Not Guilty in Deadly Fire

Hey CSF, gotta say man, you claim that you mentioned the dangerous charging situation to friends and divers many times and you think there was a way to let the company know of this danger—

And apparently you didn’t. Why would you see it, say something to other people and not take five minutes to write your concerns down?

That seems really weird.

ChemicalSuperFreak Feb 19, 2021 06:41 PM
Conception Boat Captain Pleads Not Guilty in Deadly Fire

Alex: Let the company know something they could see with their own eyes? Seriously??? If they hadn't addressed it, how would me complaining help? Maybe you're the type that goes around reporting things to store managers, etc.,---but I don't.

Diving is an inherently dangerous sport. I've seen divers jump into the ocean from the bow anchor (quite a drop) without first inflating their BC to make a rapid descent and save on air---this is against all training. Maybe I should have reported those divers to the captain and owner?

I saw a diver with his knife strapped on the outside of his ankle, rather on the inside---he could get hooked on some kelp. Maybe I should have reported him to the captain and owner?

I knew a diver who didn't use a dive computer, but relied on old-fashioned dive tables---he'd regularly cheat on his surface intervals. Maybe I should have reported him to the captain and owner?

Remember, I slept in the the same Conception bunkroom those poor souls perished in. I took the risk too. You seem to be conflating someone noticing a risk and making a calculated decision to continue, versus someone seeing a fire and not reporting it.

Alexblue Feb 20, 2021 01:47 PM
Conception Boat Captain Pleads Not Guilty in Deadly Fire

Comparing reporting some issue in a store to a manager to having a moral duty to draw attention to a potentially deadly mistake is so off base. Even the individual cases that you note don’t rate comparison—someone knowingly and intentionally jumping off the bow of the boat is nothing like seeing a fault that could sink or burn a boat and kill
everyone on board. Completely inconceivable.

Basicinfo805 Feb 17, 2021 09:10 PM
Conception Boat Captain Pleads Not Guilty in Deadly Fire

As a former Coast Guard licensed operator (captain), I can distill this down - it's the captain's responsibility to have someone awake all night on watch, whether underway or at anchor. Always. Every night. Every time. I suspect he became complacent after countless uneventful overnight trips, and that's beyond unfortunate, for all involved.
I'm very surprised he plead as he did.

PitLocal Feb 18, 2021 03:11 PM
Conception Boat Captain Pleads Not Guilty in Deadly Fire

To CHEMICALSUPERFREAK: Thank you for that perspective. I have also been on several dive trips on the Conception and Vision, and have been of the same opinion on this tragedy since the day it happened.

Channelfog Feb 19, 2021 02:17 AM
Conception Boat Captain Pleads Not Guilty in Deadly Fire

It sounds as if the lack of roving night watch was standard operating procedure for the company and it is likely that the owners knew or had heard of this, yet made no demands of the captains under their employment.

Alexblue Feb 19, 2021 09:23 AM
Conception Boat Captain Pleads Not Guilty in Deadly Fire

Channel Fog, that’s exactly right, the report clearly demonstrates that it was not a boat specific issue, it was a company issue. I don’t see how the company comes out of it without being charged. Again it is tragic, and I don’t know how putting the Captain in a prison will help society, he certainly isn’t going to captain another vessel again, so how is he a danger? One could argue that a public trial and imprisonment could serve as enough of a warning to other operators that they will follow the law.

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