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Captain Indicted in Deadly 2019 Conception Boat Fire

The captain of the Conception, a Santa Barbara-based dive boat that caught fire near Santa Cruz Island in 2019, leading to the deaths of 34 people, was indicted Tuesday.

Jerry Nehl Boylan, 68, of Santa Barbara, was indicted on a charge of misconduct or neglect of ship officer, according to the United States Attorney’s Office.

The indictment revives a charge against Boylan after a judge dismissed a similar charge previously, only in that case it did not allege gross negligence.

The new charge alleges Boylan failed his responsibilities as a captain in the following ways:

  • failing to have a night watch or roving patrol;
  • failing to conduct sufficient fire drills and crew training;
  • failing to provide firefighting instructions or directions to crewmembers after the fire started;
  • failing to use firefighting equipment, including a fire ax and fire extinguisher that were next to him in the wheelhouse, to fight the fire or attempt to rescue trapped passengers;
  • failing to “to perform any lifesaving or firefighting activities whatsoever at the time of the fire, even though he was uninjured”;
  • failing to use the boat’s public address system to warn passengers and crewmembers about the fire; and
  • becoming the first crewmember to abandon ship “even though 33 passengers and one crewmember were still alive and trapped below deck in the vessel’s bunkroom and in need of assistance to escape.”

The Labor Day Conception tragedy is considered the “worst maritime disaster in modern California history.”

Among the nearly three dozen people trapped aboard the boat when it sank were two Santa Monica residents, Marybeth Guiney and Charles McIlvain, diving enthusiasts who lived in the same condominium complex.

During the predawn hours of Sept. 2, 2019, a fire broke out while the boat was anchored in Platt’s Harbor near Santa Cruz Island.

The fire, which engulfed the boat and led to its sinking, resulted in the deaths of the 34 people who had been sleeping below deck. Boylan was among five crew members who were able to escape and jump into the water.

The fire prompted criminal and safety investigations. Victims’ families have also filed claims against the boat owners, Glen and Dana Fritzler and Truth Aquatics.

The company, in turn, filed a legal claim to shield them from damages under a maritime law that limits liability for vessel owners.

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