LOS ANGELES (AP) — A scuba diving boat captain was found guilty Monday of criminal negligence in the death of 34 people killed in fire aboard the ship in 2019, the deadliest maritime disaster in recent U.S. history.
Jerry Boylan, 69, was found guilty of one count of misconduct or neglect toward a ship’s officer following a 10-day trial in federal court in downtown Los Angeles . The charge is a pre-Civil War law known colloquially as manslaughter of a sailor which aimed to hold steamboat captains and crews responsible for maritime disasters.
Boylan is the only person facing criminal charges related to the fire. He could be sentenced to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced on February 8, but he will be able to appeal. His public defenders declined to comment as they left the courthouse.
The verdict falls more than four years after the September 2, 2019, tragedyresulting in changes to maritime regulations, congressional reform, and several ongoing civil lawsuits.
Relatives of those killed hugged and cried outside the courtroom Monday after the verdict was read.
Clark and Kathleen McIlvain, whose son Charles died at age 44, said they were relieved that there was finally some accountability for their loss.
“We are very happy that the world knows that Jerry Boylan is responsible and that he has been found guilty,” Clark McIlvain said.
Families also clapped and cheered outside the courthouse when federal prosecutors arrived for a news conference to discuss the case.
“The captain is responsible for everything that happens on board the vessel, including, most importantly, the safety of everyone on board the vessel,” U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada told reporters.
While Estrada said Boylan “failed, completely failed” in those tasks, he declined to comment when asked whether the boat’s owners would be charged now that prosecutors have secured a guilty verdict against the captain. .
The Conception was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Santa Barbara, when it caught fire before dawn on the last day of a three-day excursion, sinking less than 100 feet (30 meters) from the shore.
Thirty-three passengers and one crew member died, trapped in a dormitory located below deck. Among the dead were deckhand, who had landed his dream job; an environmental scientist who did research in Antarctica; a globe-trotting 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 the defense have sought to assign blame throughout the trial.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Boylan failed to provide required roving night watch and never properly trained his team how to fight fires. The lack of roving surveillance allowed the fire to spread undetected on the 75-foot (23-meter) boat.
Boylan’s lawyers sought to shift blame to boat owner Glen Fritzlerwho with his wife owns Truth Aquatics Inc., which operated the Conception and two other scuba diving boats, often around the Channel Islands.
They claimed that Fritzler was responsible for not having trained the crew in firefighting and other safety measures, as well as the creation of a lax maritime culture they called “the Fritzler way”, in which no captain who worked for him posted a roving watch.
The Fritzlers have not spoken publicly about the tragedy since an interview with a local television station days after the fire. Their lawyers never responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press, including on Monday.
Kendra Chan, 26, was killed in Conception, along with her father, Raymond “Scott” Chan, 59. Vicki Moore, who was Raymond’s wife and Kendra’s mother, said Monday that justice had been served.
“A strong message was sent that if you are the captain of a boat, you are truly responsible and there are consequences if you don’t follow the law,” Moore said after the verdict.
Although the criminal trial has concluded, several civil suits remain pending.
Three days after the fire, Truth Aquatics filed a complaint under a provision of pre-Civil War maritime law that allows him to limit his liability to the value of the boat’s remains, which constituted a total loss. This tried-and-true legal maneuver was used successfully by the owners of the Titanic and other ships, and requires the Fritzlers to demonstrate that they were not at fault.
This case is ongoing, along with others filed by victims’ families against the Coast Guard for alleged lax enforcement of the roving surveillance requirement.
The Channel Islands attract boaters, divers and hikers. Five of the eight Channel Islands make up the national park, and Santa Cruz is the largest in the park at approximately 96 square miles (249 square kilometers).
Associated Press writer Christopher Weber contributed.