A captain of a scuba diving boat that caught fire and sank off the coast of California last year has been charged with 34 counts of manslaughter.
All the passengers on board and one crew member – a total of 21 women and 13 men ranging in age from 16 to 62 years old – died when the fire broke out in the early hours of 2 September in one of the deadliest maritime disasters in recent US history.
Jerry Boylan, 67, was charged with 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter for “misconduct, negligence and inattention” after allegedly failing to train his crew, conduct fire drills and have a roving night watchman on the Conception when the blaze started.
US lawyer Nick Hanna said in a statement: “As a result of the alleged failures of Captain Boylan to follow well-established safety rules, a pleasant holiday dive trip turned into a hellish nightmare as passengers and one crew member found themselves trapped in a fiery bunkroom with no means of escape.”
Boylan and four other crew members managed to escape the burning boat after he made a breathless mayday call.
All 33 passengers and one crew member died in the bunkroom.
Some of the victims were found with their shoes on, leading to speculation they were trying to escape but were trapped by the flames that blocked a stairwell and a small hatch that were the only exits to the deck above.
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A coroner’s report established that they all died of smoke inhalation.
The rare federal charges against Boylan were brought under a pre-Civil War law aimed at holding steamboat captains and crew responsible for sea disasters that occurred more often in the past.
Each count carries a possible 10-year prison term with conviction.
The cause of the blaze has been under investigation for than a year and may be impossible to pinpoint.
It took place on the final night of a three-day Labor Day weekend diving excursion near Santa Cruz Island, off Santa Barbara.
In a bid to avoid payouts to the victims’ families, the company that owned the boat, Truth Aquatics Inc, has filed a suit in federal court under a provision in maritime law.
Most of the relatives are filing claims against boat owners Glen and Dana Fritzler and the company.