Boating Safety

Captain of Conception Dive Boat Indicted in Fire That Killed 34

The remains of the Conception after the fire that killed 34 people on board was extinguished.

The captain of the Conception, the dive boat that caught fire last year off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., was indicted on December 1 by a federal grand jury on 34 counts of manslaughter for the passengers and crew member who died in the incident.

Responsible for Safety

The indictment says that as the leader of the Labor Day weekend diving excursion near the Channel Islands, Jerry Boylan, 67, “was responsible for the safety and security of the vessel, its crew, and its passengers,” according to a statement from the U.S attorney’s office in Los Angeles.”

Boylan, a resident of Santa Barbara, is expected to surrender to authorities at a later date. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for each count of seaman’s manslaughter. Typically, defendants have served less time in custody.

 

Jerry Boylan (black jacket, beard) as he returned to the mainland.

 

United States Attorney Nick Hanna released the following statement: “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 crewmember found themselves trapped in a fiery bunkroom with no means of escape.”

Follow-Up Investigation

The vessel’s owner Glen Fritzler and his company, Truth Aquatics, have been the subject of a multi-agency investigation that began shortly after the Conception burned. Earlier this year, according to the Los Angeles Times, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) faulted Truth Aquatics for failing to adhere to a variety of safety practices. The chairman of the NTSB, Robert Sumwalt, allegedly told the company, “Clean up your act.” The company is also facing a barrage of lawsuits from the relatives of the passengers. The indictment of Boylan is the first criminal charge.

 

The Conception at anchor on a previous trip. It has been suggested that the boat’s electrical systems needed to be updated to meet the charging demands of modern electrical accessories.

As the captain of the Conception, Boylan has been the target of inquiries. In July, he and his attorney met with prosecutors and were presented with evidence authorities had gathered about his failure to safely operate the vessel.

According to a report on TradeOnlyToday.com, investigators said Boylan neglected key safety precautions that had contributed to the deadliness of the fire including neglecting to conduct mandatory safety drills and crew training and by failing to post a federally required night patrol. The NTSB determined that the fire began in the back of a middle-deck salon where lithium-ion batteries were being charged, but the agency couldn’t say whether it was the batterie’s, the ship’s electrical system or an unattended fire source that ignited the blaze.

 

The Conception hull was the subject of numerous inspections since the fire.

NTSB chairman Sumwalt said regardless of the source of the fire, those below deck probably could have escaped if there had been early detection of the blaze by a roving watch. Instead, most of the crew was asleep on the top level of the boat. Without anyone awake, the agency found, the crew learned of the fire by the crackle and glow of the flames.

Recommendations

The NTSB said that vessels like the Conception that have overnight accommodations should be required to have interconnected smoke detectors in all passenger areas. The board also recommended that a secondary means of escape lead to a different space than the primary exit in case fire blocks both escape paths, which was the case in the Conception disaster.

The Fleming Yachts 78 has an escape ladder for the forward cabin.

There have also been increased calls for Congress to pass the Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act. The bill includes stricter standards for fire alarm systems and requires no less than two escape routes from all areas used by passengers. Many pleasure yacht builders including Fleming already provide means of escape including extended ladders for forward staterooms.