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Captain sentenced to four years following deadly fire aboard dive boat Conception in California

Captain of dive boat Conception sentenced to four years for deadly fire
Captain of dive boat Conception sentenced to four years for deadly fire 02:30

The captain of the dive boat Conception, which caught fire and killed all 33 of the boat's passengers and one crew member in 2019, was sentenced to four years in prison at a Los Angeles federal court Thursday. Captain Jerry Boylan, now 70, faced a maximum sentencing of 10 years in federal prison.

U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada expressed his disappointment with the sentencing, though he respected the judge's decision.

"Certainly, four years was not what we wanted. We wanted the 10 years. We thought the appropriate sentence was 10 years in this case," Estrada said. 

Defendant Jerry Boylan, captain of the Conception dive boat.
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 03: Defendant Jerry Boylan, right, captain of the Conception dive boat, arrives at Federal Court on Friday, Nov. 3, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA.  Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Boylan was found guilty in 2023 of one count of misconduct or neglect of ship officer, also known as "seaman's manslaughter", for one of the deadliest maritime disasters in recent U.S. history. 

The fatal fire happened in the early morning hours of Sept. 2, 2019, while the dive boat was anchored off the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island, which is about 22 miles southwest of Santa Barbara. 

A total of 39 people — 33 passengers and six crewmembers — were aboard the ship when it caught on fire. Those who were asleep below deck, were still alive and in need of assistance to escape, prosecutors said. Boylan and four crew members escaped.

Susana Solano Rosas, who lost three children and her husband in the fire, said she felt relief that there was a conviction, but wasn't happy with the outcome.

"I'm very, very disappointed in the sentencing… for the loss of 34 lives. I've lost my belief in our justice system that we have in our country because I would have expected 10 years," said Solano Rosas.

The United States Attorney's Office said Boylan failed to perform his duties as the captain by being the first crewmember to abandon the ship without using the public address system to warn the occupants about the fire. Additionally, federal prosecutors claimed that Boylan did not attempt to fight the fire with the onboard equipment — which included an extinguisher — and did not post a night watch, which allowed the blaze to spread through the vessel undetected. 

Defense attorneys argued that the flames quickly closed in on Boylan, but he stayed aboard until he made the mayday call to the Coast Guard and only jumped when he was sure he would not live otherwise.

Surviving crew members told the National Transportation Safety Board 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, a violation of Coast Guard rules requiring there to be a night watchman on duty.  

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. It was originally thought the fire may have been sparked by overheated lithium ion batteries. 

It took rescue boats about an hour to reach the disaster. By that time, the Conception was totally engulfed in flames and all 34 victims had died. 

"The key issue here is the defendant's duties as captain," according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Boylan was originally charged in December 2020 with 34 counts of seaman's manslaughter, but after the defense objected, prosecutors refiled an indictment on the single count covering all the deaths.

At his sentencing Thursday, Boylan was ordered to surrender on July 11 or shortly thereafter to begin his prison time. 

Kathleen McIlvain held a picture of her son Charlie as she thanked all the agencies involved in the investigation but was disappointed with the sentencing.  

"Our lives are changed forever. I don't really know how, that we go forward, but we'll give it a shot for Charlie," McIlvain said. 

James Adamic lost his sister Diana Adamic, brother-in-law Steven Salika and niece Tia Salika-Adamic. He was angered not by the sentencing, but by Boylan's lack of accountability.

"I don't care much about the sentence, what angers me is that his statement. Jerry Boylan's statement was not an admission of responsibility, it was that he felt sadness over the loss. Who doesn't," Adamic said. "He never once said 'I was wrong,' and that's the part that angers me tremendously."

Randy Thompson with the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service called the dive boat disaster a terrible tragedy. 

"I hope the maritime industry takes significant notes from what has happened here today and makes changes that need to happen to make the industry safer for everyone," Thompson said. 

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