Captain Pleads Not Guilty to Manslaughter in CA Boat Fire

FILE - In this Sept. 2, 2019, file photo provided by the Ventura County Fire Department, firefighters respond to a fire aboard the Conception dive boat fire in the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of Southern California. The Coast Guard signaled Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, that it would undertake a series of recommended safety reforms for passenger vessels in the wake of a 2019 scuba dive boat fire that killed 34 people off the California coast, but a top transportation official cautioned that any changes might take years to enact. The blaze broke out aboard the Conception during the final night of a three-day Labor Day weekend scuba diving excursion near Santa Cruz Island off Santa Barbara. The tragedy marked the deadliest marine disaster in California in modern history. (Ventura County Fire Department via AP, File)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The captain of a scuba diving boat that burned and sank off the California coast, killing 34 people, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to manslaughter charges. 

Jerry Boylan was arraigned in federal court in Los Angeles on 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter. Each count carries a potential 10-year prison term.

Prosecutors say Boylan failed to follow safety rules before the fire broke out Sept. 2, 2019, on the Conception and led to one of the deadliest maritime disasters in recent U.S. history.

Boylan was accused of “misconduct, negligence and inattention” by failing to train his crew, conduct fire drills and have a roving night watchman on the boat when the fire ignited.

The rare federal charges against Boylan were brought under a pre-Civil War law designed to hold steamboat captains and crew responsible for maritime disasters that were much more frequent at the time.

Boylan and four other crew members, who had all been sleeping, escaped from the fiery boat after the captain made a panicked mayday call.

All 33 passengers and one crew member died in the bunkroom below deck, some wearing shoes that led to speculation they were trying to escape. Officials said they were trapped by flames that blocked a stairwell and a small hatch that were the only exits. All died of smoke inhalation, according to coroner’s reports.

Federal safety investigators blamed the owners of the vessel, Truth Aquatics Inc., for a lack of oversight, though they have not been charged with a crime. 

Truth Aquatics has sued in federal court under a provision in maritime law to avoid payouts to the families of the victims. The families of 32 victims have filed claims against boat owners Glen and Dana Fritzler and the company. 

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