By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) -The captain of a dive boat that caught fire and sank off the California coast in 2019, killing 34 people on board in one of the state’s deadliest maritime disasters, was found guilty on Monday of a federal charge of seaman’s manslaughter.
Jerry Boylan, 70, was convicted by a U.S. District Court jury in Los Angeles on a single charged count of “misconduct or neglect of a ship officer” under a federal homicide statute dating from steamboat accidents in the early 1800s.
The felony conviction, capping a 10-day trial, carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, according to Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles. Sentencing was set for Feb. 8. Boylan remains free on $75,000 bond.
He was captain of the 75-foot dive boat Conception when the vessel went up in flames in the early morning hours of Sept. 2, 2019, while anchored in Platt’s Harbor near Santa Cruz Island, off the Santa Barbara Coast, during a sport diving trip.
Thirty-three passengers and one member of the crew died in the Labor Day holiday weekend blaze. They had been sleeping in a bunk room below deck when the fire began.
Media have called blaze the most lethal modern maritime accident on record in California.
The five surviving crew members, including Boylan, had been above deck in berths behind the wheelhouse and escaped by leaping overboard as the burning vessel sank in the Pacific. They told investigators that flames coming from the passenger quarters were too intense to save anyone trapped below.
But the jury unanimously agreed with prosecutors that Boylan, as charged in the indictment, acted with “reckless disregard for human life by engaging in misconduct, gross negligence, and inattention to his duties”.
Among lapses cited by prosecutors, Boylan neglected to maintain a night watch or roving patrol as required, failed to conduct sufficient fire drills and crew emergency training and left the vessel without attempting to fight the blaze or rescue passengers, even though he was unhurt.
Prosecutors said he was the first to abandon ship and did so without using the boat’s public address system to warn passengers and crew about the fire.
Defense attorneys cast blame on the vessel’s owner for not insisting on night patrols or fire training by his fleet’s captains or crews, according to an account of the trial by the Los Angeles City News Service.
Boylan’s lawyers argued that the flames quickly closed in on their client, and that he remained on the boat long enough to broadcast a distress call to the U.S. Coast Guard and only jumped overboard when he was certain he would not survive otherwise.
While federal investigators said they were unable to determine precisely what triggered the blaze, they found it began toward the rear of the main deck where passengers had plugged cellphones and other devices into lithium ion battery chargers.
Following the disaster, the Coast Guard issued a safety bulletin urging limits on such batteries and chargers aboard passenger vessels.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Miral Fahmy, Robert Birsel)