Trial for Captain of the Conception Begins, Without Manslaughter Charge

The fire aboard the Conception killed 34 people, making it the worst American maritime disaster in decades (Santa Barbara Fire Department)

Published Oct 25, 2023 3:59 PM by The Maritime Executive

Four years after a deadly fire claimed 34 lives aboard the dive boat Conception off the coast of California, the criminal trial for the vessel's captain has finally begun. 

Jury selection began Tuesday and Wednesday for the trial of skipper Jerry Boylan, who was responsible for Conception's passengers and crew on the boat's ill-fated final voyage. According to the NTSB, Boylan's failure to post an overnight roving watchman was a key element in the tragedy: the crew only discovered the fire after it had grown substantially, reducing the odds of saving the vessel and its passengers.

Boylan and the crewmembers sleeping abovedecks abandoned ship and survived the casualty. All 34 people in the belowdecks berthing area died of smoke inhalation. 

The indictment alleges that Boylan was first to abandon ship, accusing him of "failure to perform any lifesaving or firefighting activities whatsoever at the time of the fire, even though he was uninjured." Boylan denies the charges and has pleaded not guilty.

Federal prosecutors have taken a long time arriving at the start of the criminal trial. They first brought 34 charges of seaman's manslaughter against Boylan in 2020, then reduced this to a single charge after a challenge by his legal team. In 2022, a federal judge threw out the revised indictment because prosecutors did not include gross negligence, which would be required in order to convict the captain of seaman's manslaughter. Prosecutors then refiled a new case charging him with one count of misconduct or neglect of a ship's officer, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. 

During the investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) fire forensics division recreated the conditions aboard Conception with a detailed physical mockup. They concluded that the fire likely started in a plastic trash can located under a wooden ladder on the main deck. 

The deadly fire prompted a wave of regulatory action to improve passenger vessel safety, and the National Transportation Safety Bureau continues to urge further requirements - particularly a mandatory SMS standard.