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Prosecutors say Jerry Boylan was negligent when he failed to institute a roving night watch or conduct proper fire drills aboard the Conception before it caught fire in 2019, killing 34, including six from Santa Cruz County. Boylan has pleaded not guilty.

Four years after a fire killed 34 people, including six from Santa Cruz County, in a dive boat off the coast of Santa Barbara, the boat’s 71-year-old captain is on trial to determine whether he is criminally responsible for their deaths.

Jerry Boylan was negligent when he failed to institute a roving night watch or conduct proper fire drills aboard the Conception before it caught fire in the deadliest maritime disaster in recent U.S. history, prosecutors say. Jury selection began Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, where he faces one count of neglect or misconduct by a ship officer.

“He’s been able to live his life while all the families cannot,” said Kathleen McIlvain, whose son Charles, 44, was killed in the fire on the 75-foot commercial diving vessel. A federal judge has ruled that prosecutors cannot refer to those killed as “victims,” deepening the anger among surviving families.

The boat was anchored off the Channel Islands on Sept. 2, 2019, on the final day of a three-day trip. Around 3 a.m., a fire of unknown origin began spreading on deck. Flames blocked both exits of the bunk room below deck, where 33 passengers and one crew member found themselves trapped. Among them were Kristy Finstad, 41, Carol Adamic, 60, Steve Salika, 55, Tia Salika, 17, and Berenice Felipe, 16 — all of Santa Cruz — and Vaidehi Campbell Williams, 41, of Felton.

Federal prosecutors allege Boylan failed to follow well-established safety protocols, such as a roving watch, or properly train his crew in the use of a fire ax or fire extinguisher.

Boylan has pleaded not guilty, and his legal team of federal public defenders is expected to argue that he followed protocols laid out by the boat’s owner, Truth Aquatics, a Santa Barbara-based diving outfit.

Santa Barbara County officials maintained that the fire victims likely died unaware of the encroaching flames. But an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board revealed that many of those trapped below deck were awake — some wearing shoes — as the fire engulfed the vessel. Cellphone videos later recovered by FBI forensics experts showed frantic passengers trying to escape as smoke filled the bunk room.

The NTSB, which has recommended stricter safety measures as a result of the Conception fire, concluded that the lack of a roving patrol led directly to the high number of fatalities.

“The crew was not able to warn passengers or aid in their escape,” an NTSB report said. “Had a crew member been awake and actively patrolling the Conception on the morning of the fire, it is likely that they would have discovered the fire at an early stage, allowing time to fight the fire and give warning to the passengers and crew to evacuate.”

The NTSB concluded that Truth Aquatics had “provided ineffective oversight of its vessels’ operations,” thereby putting crew and passengers in danger. Truth Aquatics owner Glen Fritzler, who has denied wrongdoing, faced a barrage of lawsuits from the relatives of dead passengers but no criminal charges.

The dive boat Conception smolders after it burned off Santa Cruz Island on Sept. 2, 2019.
The dive boat Conception smolders after it burned off Santa Cruz Island on Sept. 2, 2019. Credit: Ventura County Fire Department via Los Angeles Times

Boylan was a veteran seaman with a long history at Truth Aquatics and experience navigating the Channel Islands. He told the U.S. Coast Guard that by the time crew awakened him, the fire had already reached the upper deck and smoke filled the wheelhouse at the top of the boat. He managed to issue a distress call shortly after 3 a.m., gasping into the radio, “I can’t breathe.”

Boylan jumped into the water to escape. A galley hand told federal officials that when Boylan came to the surface of the water, he said, “ ‘Oh my God, all those people,’” according to NTSB records.

U.S. District Judge George H. Wu and attorneys spent three hours Tuesday questioning 22 potential jurors to find the dozen who will hear the case. At one point, a member of the defense team and a male juror with diving and boating experience discussed the notion of whether a captain should go down with his ship. “You are going to hear evidence he jumped off the ship,” the attorney said.

By day’s end, Wu had begun questioning a second group of 22 potential panelists.

The cause of the fire remains officially undetermined. Early on, speculation focused on a middle deck area where divers plugged in phones, batteries and other lithium-powered electronic devices. But a confidential report, obtained by The Times from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the blaze began in a plastic trash can on the main deck. ATF investigators based that finding on a series of burn tests at its Maryland lab and the accounts of crew members.

Boylan’s prosecution has repeatedly run into problems. He was initially indicted by a grand jury in 2020 on 34 counts of so-called “seaman’s manslaughter,” a steamship era-law that holds captains responsible for lives lost on their vessels. Each count carried a potential 10 years in prison.

Boylan’s defense argued the fire was a single incident, not separate crimes, prompting prosecutors to seek a superseding indictment on one count of seaman’s manslaughter. Last year, however, Wu threw out the indictment, finding it did not specify the necessary ingredient that Boylan acted with gross negligence.

A month later, a grand jury indicted Boylan on a single count that specified “gross negligence.” Boylan could face 10 years behind bars if convicted.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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