LOS ANGELES (AP) — A dive boat captain pleaded not guilty in federal court for a second time to manslaughter in the fiery deaths of 34 people trapped below deck on his burning vessel three years ago off Southern California.
A federal grand jury issued a new indictment last month alleging that captain Jerry Boylan acted with gross negligence aboard the Conception during one of the deadliest maritime disasters in recent U.S. history. A judge had thrown out the original case against Boylan on the third anniversary of the Sept. 2, 2019, tragedy.
Boylan made a brief appearance Thursday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, and his trial was scheduled for Dec. 20.
Boylan faces 10 years in prison if convicted of a single count of misconduct or neglect of a ship officer — a pre-Civil War statute known as “seaman’s manslaughter” that was designed to hold steamboat captains and crew responsible for maritime disasters.
All 33 passengers and a crew member who were trapped in the Conception’s bunk room died.
Boylan, who frantically radioed for help after he and four crew members sleeping above deck awoke to the fire, was the first man overboard and then told his crew to abandon ship rather than fight the fire, the indictment said.
He is accused of failing to train his crew, conduct fire drills and post a roving night watchman on the boat.
Prosecutors brought the second case against Boylan after U.S. District Judge George Wu in September dismissed the original indictment because it did not mention gross negligence, an element required to prove the crime.
The subsequent indictment alleges Boylan “acted with a wanton or reckless disregard for human life by engaging in misconduct, gross negligence and inattention to his duties.”
Officials blamed the owners of the vessel, Truth Aquatics Inc., for a lack of oversight even though federal safety investigators never found the cause of the fire. The owners, Glen and Dana Fritzler, have not been criminally charged.
Truth Aquatics is seeking to avoid payouts to the families of the victims under a provision in federal maritime law. Family members of the dead have filed claims against the Fritzlers and the company, and have sued the U.S. Coast Guard.
Family members of those who perished at sea showed up for Boylan’s arraignment and said it has been a trying three years seeking accountability.
“It’s been a long journey, a very hard journey. And learning to live with grief is very difficult,” said Susana Solano Rosas, who lost three daughters in the fire. “Today means that hopefully we can see a little bit of justice. … The court is going to move along and try this man, try this captain who allowed our 34 to be killed and burned on that boat.”
Associated Press writer Brian Melley contributed to this report.
About the photo: In this Sept. 12, 2019, file photo, the burned hull of the dive boat Conception is brought to the surface by a salvage team off Santa Cruz Island, Calif. The widow of Justin Dignam, one of the 34 people who died in the fire, has filed a lawsuit against the boat’s owners, making it the first claim from one of the 34 victims’ families. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via AP, File)
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