The captain of a submarine that sank in a 2019 fire that killed 34 people has been found criminally negligent by a jury in California.
Jerry Boylan, 69, was convicted Monday for his role in the deadliest maritime disaster in recent U.S. history.
Boylan appeared to have jumped to safety when the boat sank off the coast of Santa Barbara at dawn, trapping tourists and crew below deck.
Boylan, the only person criminally charged, was found guilty of one count of misconduct or neglect of a ship’s officer, a pre-Civil War statute colloquially known as mariner manslaughter that was intended to hold steamboat captains and crewmen responsible for maritime disasters.
He could face ten years behind bars.
Jerry Boylan, 69, is due in court on October 25. He was convicted Monday for his role in the deadliest maritime disaster in recent U.S. history
The conception is depicted in flames on September 2, 2019, off the coast of Santa Barbara
The sinking of the Conception led to changes in maritime regulations, congressional reforms, and civil lawsuits.
The boat was anchored off the Channel Islands, 25 miles south of Santa Barbara, on the last evening of a three-day diving trip.
Conception sank less than 100 feet offshore.
Among the dead were the sailor, who had gotten her dream job; an environmental scientist who conducted research in Antarctica; a world traveling couple; a Singaporean data scientist; and a family of three sisters, their father and his wife.
Boylan was the first to abandon ship and jump overboard. Four crew members who joined him also survived.
Although the exact cause of the fire remains undetermined, prosecutors and defense tried to assign blame throughout the trial.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Boylan failed to deploy the required roving night watch and never properly trained his crew in firefighting.
The lack of a roving watch allowed the fire to spread unnoticed across the 75-foot boat.
Boylan is pictured in court in November 2022, taking his not guilty plea
Boylan’s attorneys tried to pin the blame on boat owner Glen Fritzler, who with his wife owns Truth Aquatics Inc., which operated the Conception and two other dive boats.
They argued that Fritzler was responsible for failing to train crews in firefighting and other safety measures, and for creating a lax maritime culture they called “the Fritzler way,” in which no captain who worked for him posted a roving watch .
Two to three dozen relatives of the victims attended the trial in downtown Los Angeles each day.
U.S. District Court Judge George Wu warned them against showing emotion in the courtroom as they watched a 24-second video on their cellphones showing the last moments of their loved ones.
While the criminal trial is over, several civil lawsuits are still pending.
Three days after the fire, Truth Aquatics filed suit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles under a pre-Civil War maritime law provision that allows the company to limit its liability to the value of the remains of the boat, which was a total loss gone.
This time-tested legal maneuver has been used successfully by the owners of the Titanic and other ships and requires the Fritzlers to prove that they were not at fault.
That case is still pending, as are others brought against the Coast Guard by victims’ families over alleged lax enforcement of the roving watch requirement.
“The last four years have been like living a nightmare that you can’t wake up from,” said Kathleen McIlvain, whose 44-year-old son Charles died in the tragedy.
Although the fire happened in the middle of the night, some of the dead were wearing shoes, leading investigators to believe they were awake and trying to escape.
Senior Apple engineer Steve Salika (left) and Lisa Fiedler, a 52-year-old hairdresser (right) both died aboard the submarine
Michael Quitasol (center) celebrated his birthday with daughters Nicole (far left), Evan (second from right), Angela (far right) and his partner Fernisa Sison (not pictured) during a submarine fire off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. All five died in the fire
Kristy Finstad, 41, of Santa Cruz (left) was among the divers who helped lead the expedition aboard the Conception, which caught fire in the early morning hours. The only crew member to die in the boat fire as 25-year-old Allie Kurtz (right)
Raymond “Scott” Chan, 59 (left), a science teacher at American High School in Fremont, was also on board with his daughter, 26-year-old wildlife biologist Kendra Chan (right)
Charles McIlvain (left), 44, who is survived by his wife Jasmine Lord, who was not aboard the Conception. A friend wrote that ‘Chuck’ was ‘full of life’, had an ‘infectious laugh’ and was a ‘warm soul’
An Arizona couple, Patricia Beitzinger and her partner of two years, Neal Baltz, were traveling
Ocean enthusiast Marybeth Guiney (above) was among those aboard the ship. She was remembered for her work to help protect sharks and other marine life
Both exits from the bunk room below deck were blocked by flames.
Coroner’s reports listed smoke inhalation as the cause of death, although no official autopsies were ever performed.
The trial was prolonged with setbacks when judge Wu ruled in 2022 that the superseding indictment did not specify that Boylanwhich is a required element to prove the crime of manslaughter by a seaman.
He dismissed that charge and forced prosecutors to appear before a grand jury again.
The Labor Day tragedy led to changes in maritime regulations, reforms in Congress and civil lawsuits.
After the incident, the Coast Guard issued new rules for fire detection systems, extinguishers, escape routes and other safety measures, as mandated by Congress.