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'Cowardice and Repeated Failures': Dive Boat Captain Sentenced for 2019 Fire That Killed 34 in California

Dive Boat Captain Sentenced to 4 Years for Role in Deadly 2019 Fire
Source: Ventura County Fire Department

Thirty-four passengers and crew died in the dive boat Conception fire.

May 8 2024, Published 9:43 a.m. ET

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The captain of a dive boat that caught fire and sank off the coast of California in 2019, killing 34 people on board, was sentenced to four years in prison, officials said.

Jerry Nehl Boylan, 70, was found guilty in November of 2023 of one count of misconduct or neglect of ship officer — an offense also known as “seaman’s manslaughter.”

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Boylan was the captain of the Conception, a 75-foot passenger boat operating out of Santa Barbara Harbor. The boat embarked on a dive trip during Labor Day weekend in 2019 with 33 passengers and six crew members, including Boylan.

On Sept. 2, 2019, while the boat was anchored in Platt’s Harbor near Santa Cruz Island, a fire broke out during the early morning hours and engulfed the boat, causing it to sink.

Five crew members, including Boylan, escaped and survived. The 33 passengers and remaining crew member were sleeping below deck and died as a result of negligence.

“The fate of the victims on the Conception might have been different were it not for the negligence of the defendant,” Mehtab Syed, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, said in a statement. “I want to commend the collaborative effort by investigators and prosecutors that led to today’s sentence and hope that it delivers a measure of justice to the victims’ families as they continue to heal from this tragedy.”

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Boylan committed a "series of failures" even before he abandoned ship without attempting to rescue passengers, according to prosecutors.

Boylan failed to have a night watch or roving patrol; failed to conduct sufficient fire drills and crew training; failed to provide firefighting instructions to crew members after the fire broke out; failed to use the fire ax and fire extinguisher at his disposal, to fight the fire, or attempt rescue; failed to perform any firefighting or lifesaving activities; failed to use the boat's public address system to warn anyone of the fire; and was the first crew member to abandon ship, even though the passengers and crew were still alive below deck and required assistance to escape.

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“The defendant’s cowardice and repeated failures caused the horrific deaths of 34 people,” said United States Attorney Martin Estrada. “The victims’ families will be forever devastated by this needless tragedy. While today’s sentence cannot fully heal their wounds, we hope that our efforts to hold this defendant criminally accountable brings some measure of healing to the families.”

TMX contributed to this report.

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