Skip to content

Captain of ‘Conception’ Faces Manslaughter Charges

The captain of the Conception — the dive boat that was destroyed by fire in September 2019, killing 33 passengers and one crew member — has been indicted on manslaughter charges for each death.

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that investigators had found that captain Jerry Boylan, who is 67, was negligent in key safety precautions, contributing to the deadliness of the fire. “Mr. Boylan failed to conduct mandatory fire drills and crew training, and he did not post a federally required night watch or patrol,” the Times reported, quoting the indictment.

The Conception in Platts Harbor, off Santa Cruz Island, on September 2, 2019, the morning of the fire.
© 2020 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Ventura County Fire Department

“The 33 passengers aboard the Conception, a 75-foot commercial scuba diving vessel, were sleeping below deck when the blaze began on a Labor Day weekend excursion to the Channel Islands … south of Santa Barbara,” the Times said, adding that the deaths were attributed to smoke inhalation. The Times said the Conception’s schematics showed that there was a single exit up to the galley; other reporting has suggested that there was also a second “escape hatch” above one of the bunks, though some former passengers said they were unaware of this emergency exit.

According to the Times, the National Transportation Safety Board said in October that “the fire had turned deadly in part because of the lack of a required night patrol; escape hatches that sent victims into the lounge, where the fire most likely broke out; and an absence of smoke detectors in the lounge.” The Times said that investigators could not determine the cause of the fire.

Each charge of “seaman’s manslaughter” carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.

After the disaster, we wrote, “Going forward, we encourage all boaters to let the officials do their jobs ….” Over time, we’ve learned about both criminal negligence and design and safety flaws that will no doubt be improved for the safety of future divers and boaters. The Conception fire was an unspeakable tragedy with devastating consequences for the victims and their families, but — we hope — the lessons learned will help all of us be more vigilant to avoid future calamities.

Contribute

13 Comments

  1. Gary A Green 4 years ago

    Is the owner of Truth Aquatics going to be charged? Is doesn’t seem right that the Captain will be the only one to bear the brunt of the criminal charges.

    I have my 100 ton license and was once contacted by Truth Aquatics to be a relief Captain. They wanted me to come down and go out with them on a two day trip as a working interview. I subsequently found out that they did this all the time to have a second captain on-board without having to pay them.

    During my two day trip with them, I noticed that they were very lax about proper protocols and safety procedures. The only people that actually seemed to do any work were the two women who did the cooking and the one guy who filled the tanks.

    It is a terrible tragedy that this happened, but all of the blame should not be laid at the feet of the captain. The owner had a big hand in creating the type of culture that lead to this tragedy.

    • Maryann Hinden 4 years ago

      I would have to agree that the owner should have an equal share in the blame.

  2. Greg Clausen 4 years ago

    Captain and boat company were both responsible for the safety of passengers, guilty

  3. Sheila 4 years ago

    He was Captain of his vessel and it is the Captains sole responsibility to make sure that the vessel is not only in legal compliance but must hold him/herself to a higher standard.
    This Captain had a choice – to sail or not.
    This is no different than in aviation no matter what size of aircraft.
    Is there an onus of due diligence on the part of the company? That would have to be investigated by the law or the families.
    An extremely sad situation.

  4. George DeVore 4 years ago

    Other articles have noted that the vessel consistently passed all of its safety inspections, implying that the Coast Guard needs to draft some more stringent regulations [such as minimum requirements of an escape hatch!]
    I am intrigued about the requirement for a roving night watch, but have been unable to find it anywhere on the Internet. Anyone know what it is, specifically, and where to read it?

    • Mark Caplin 4 years ago

      164.19 Requirements for vessels at anchor.
      The master or person in charge of each vessel that is anchored shall ensure that:

      (a) A proper anchor watch is maintained;

      (b) Procedures are followed to detect a dragging anchor; and

      (c) Whenever weather, tide, or current conditions are likely to cause the vessel’s anchor to drag, action is taken to ensure the safety of the vessel, structures, and other vessels, such as being ready to veer chain, let go a second anchor, or get underway using the vessel’s own propulsion or tug assistance.

      [CGD 74-77, 42 FR 5956, Jan. 31, 1977]

      and Rule 5 of the COLREGS

  5. ken brinkley 4 years ago

    The fault lays with the owners as much as the skipper .

    • Roger Anderson 4 years ago

      Hi Ken,
      If the boat did not have required safety accommodations for the expected amount of passengers i would agree.
      It sounds like it did though. There’s talk of another escape hatch that should have been briefed to the passengers and crew. If that was not provided with proper signage and made obvious to people that it was there, then that too points to owner responsibility. If everything was proper however; the skipper, not the owner, takes primary responsibility. If you rent a car, Avis is is not held responsible if you text and run into a crowded cross walk.

    • Roger Anderson 4 years ago

      Hi Ken, if the owning company hired the skipper and developed (or should have) the safety training then i agree. The owning company should have vetted the skipper and concept of operation to include safety procedures. The skipper takes some responsibility but not all.

  6. Kelvin D. Meeks 4 years ago

    I do not dispute that this was a terrible tragedy.
    And, that based on a cursory examination of the facts – one might correctly conclude that liability most likely lies with the captain of the vessel – and the owner of the company.

    However, there is a part of me that asks – if this was truly an unfortunate accident – is justice served properly by destroying the life of the captain of the vessel?

    Additionally, there are questions that any defense should probably consider and raise:

    1) Is it possible, and beyond a reasonable doubt, that one of the many cell phones (that were being charged overnight) may have had some physical damage – that caused the fire – and if so – could there have been one or more form(s) of accelerant – that either separately or in combination – resulted in a rapid progression of the fire – such that it was at a rate that overwhelmed any possible response that the crew might have been able to muster?

    2) Is it beyond a reasonable doubt – that one of the crew, or passengers, might have performed some action (whether intentional or unintentional) – that might have contributed to the rate of progression of the fire?

  7. Mike 4 years ago

    It has been an unfortunate truth for centuries that shipping companies will try to operate their vessels as cheaply as possible. It is the legal and moral obligation of the master to place the safety of the crew, passengers, vessel and environment above company demands. While it might not seem right that he alone faces criminal charges, it is the liability every captain knowingly takes when taking command of a vessel.

    It was his job to ensure everyone’s safety. If the company hindered his ability to safely operate the vessel, he could have gone to the Coast Guard, who usually have no problem supporting mariners who are going up against the company in a situation like this.

    Not defending the company, just saying that as the captain and as a licensed mariner, he was responsible for the vessel and everyone aboard. There is a reason that responsibility should not have been taken lightly.

  8. Paul Petraitis 4 years ago

    As a captain of a wedding boat in Newport harbor one of my first questions was do you do fire drills? Owner assured me yes but crew to me never! I tried to change that and got let go. I did not argue, grabbed my last pay check and ran! I is the Captains responsibility to do fire drills! PERIOD!!

  9. James Dilworth 4 years ago

    FWIW, I went out with Truth Aquatics on the sister ship Vision a couple months prior. Safety briefing did make good note of the hatch exit. However the hatch was awkwardly located above a third floor bunk, and I can’t imagine many people would have been able to find it and then clamber up to and through it in the dark and smoke. These things are always chains of events, but I would certainly blame the hatch, and the lack of fire alarm or suppression before the night watch.

Leave a Comment




Sunny Sails in SoCal
We recently bought a 1989 Sabre 38 MkII in Long Beach, and with the arrival of Thanksgiving, we decided to take our pod south for the weekend to get to know the boat and the Long Beach area.