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Former California dive boat captain convicted of misconduct in 2019 fire that killed 34

By Elizabeth Wolfe, CNN

(CNN) — A former dive boat captain has been convicted of neglect of a ship officer – also known as “seaman’s manslaughter” – in connection with an overnight fire that ravaged his vessel on Labor Day 2019, killing 34 people on board and causing the boat to sink off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, prosecutors announced.

A jury found Jerry Nehl Boylan, 69, guilty of one federal felony count of misconduct or neglect of ship officer on Monday, the US Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California said in a release.

“As the jury found, this tragedy could have been avoided had Mr. Boylan simply performed the duties he was entrusted to carry out,” US Attorney Martin Estrada said in the release. “We hope that today’s verdict brings some solace and closure to the victims’ loved ones.”

The 75-foot vessel, dubbed the Conception, was on the final day of a three-day dive trip on September 2, 2019, when the blaze broke out in the early morning hours as it was anchored near Santa Cruz Island in California’s Channel Islands.

Only five crew members, including Boylan, were able to escape. Thirty-three passengers and one crew member who were sleeping below deck died in the fire.

It was the deadliest maritime accident in nearly 70 years, former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt has said.

Boylan was the first crew member to abandon ship as dozens remained trapped below deck inside the boat’s bunk room, prosecutors said in the release. Police have said all 34 people killed died of smoke inhalation and suffered burns after losing consciousness.

During the 10-day trial, prosecutors argued Boylan neglected his duties as a captain in several ways, including not trying to fight the fire or rescue passengers, failing to conduct sufficient fire drills or crew training, and not setting a night watch, the attorney’s office said.

CNN has sought comment from Boylan’s attorneys.

The misconduct charge is punishable by up to 10 years in federal prison. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for February 8. Boylan is free on a $75,000 bond, the US Attorney’s Office said.

Investigators believe the fire may have been caused by cell phones and batteries left charging overnight, though it is not possible to definitively determine a cause, Sumwalt said in 2020.

The NTSB faulted the boat’s operator for not requiring a crew member to patrol the craft as an overnight watchman, as mandated by the boat’s license and Coast Guard regulations. The agency’s investigators determined the tragedy would likely have been prevented by night patrol, who could have discovered the fire in its early stages, allowing the crew more time to fight the inferno and warn those below deck to evacuate.

An attorney for the boat’s owner, Truth Aquatics, said in 2019 that a crew member had checked the area where the fire was believed to have been concentrated before it ignited. The attorney, Douglas Schwartz, did not point to any evidence the crew member had remained awake.

Boylan was initially charged with manslaughter, but the charge was dismissed last year by a federal judge who argued the indictment failed to clearly allege gross negligence.

CNN’s Taylor Romine contributed to this report.

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