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California dive boat captain faces new federal charge in fire that killed 34

New details emerge in CA dive boat fire
All six crew members were asleep before deadly dive boat fire, NTSB report says 01:30

A federal grant jury issued a new indictment Tuesday against a dive boat captain, alleging that he acted with gross negligence when a 2019 fire aboard his vessel led to the deaths of 34 people off the Southern California coast.

The new indictment comes more than a month after a judge threw out the original case because it failed to specify that Captain Jerry Boylan acted with gross negligence aboard the Conception during one of the deadliest maritime disasters in recent U.S. history.

Boylan, 68, is again charged with a single count of misconduct or neglect of ship officer, a pre-Civil War statute colloquially known as "seaman's manslaughter" that was designed to hold steamboat captains and crew responsible for maritime disasters. He faces 10 years in prison and is expected to be arraigned in the coming weeks. His federal public defenders did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday.

Families of 11 victims praised the new charge against Boylan.

"This tragedy was totally preventable and due to his negligence and inaction 34 lives were lost and our lives changed forever," the families said in a statement.

The Conception went down in flames on Sept. 2, 2019, near an island off the coast of Santa Barbara. All 33 passengers and a crew member who were trapped in a bunk room below deck died. Boylan and four other crew members escaped.

Dive boat fire Santa Barbara California Conception
FILE -- Members of the FBI and other officials work in front of the ship Truth, a sister ship of the diving ship Conception, on Sept. 3, 2019, in Santa Barbara, California, following a blaze aboard the dive boat Conception which claimed the lives of 34 people.  Getty Images

Tuesday's indictment alleges that Boylan "acted with a wanton or reckless disregard for human life by engaging in misconduct, gross negligence and inattention to his duties." He is accused of failing to train his crew, conduct fire drills and post a roving night watchman on the boat when the fire ignited.

Although federal safety investigators never found the cause of the fire, officials blamed the owners of the vessel, Truth Aquatics Inc., for a lack of oversight, though they were not charged with a crime.

Investigators had considered at one point that the fire may have been sparked by overheated lithium ion batteries. The tragedy led the U.S. Coast Guard to reissue its emergency water safety guidelines, which include limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium ion batteries.

Surviving crew members also told the NTSB that the boat's smoke alarms never went off.  A preliminary NTSB report found that all six crew members were asleep when the fire broke out, which would have been a violation of Coast Guard rules requiring there to be a night watchman on duty.

Truth Aquatics sued in federal court under a provision in maritime law to avoid payouts to the families of the victims. Family members of the dead have filed claims against boat owners Glen and Dana Fritzler and the company, and have sued the U.S. Coast Guard.

Boylan originally was indicted on 34 counts of misconduct or neglect of ship officer — which the initial indictment called seaman's manslaughter — in 2020, with each carrying a possible prison term of 10 years if he was convicted. Defense lawyers sought to dismiss those charges because they argued the deaths were the result of a single incident, and not separate crimes.

Before that issue could be argued in court, prosecutors got a superseding indictment this summer charging Boylan with only one count alleging his negligence caused all 34 deaths. If convicted, he would have faced a maximum of 10 years in prison.

But in September, on the third anniversary of the tragedy, U.S. District Judge George Wu said that indictment did not mention gross negligence, which he said was a required element to prove the crime of seaman's manslaughter.

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