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US captain of scuba dive boat charged with manslaughter over deaths of 34 people last year

The boat sank off the California coast after bursting into flames last year.

The dive boat engulfed in flames after a deadly fire broke out aboard (file photo)
The dive boat engulfed in flames after a deadly fire broke out aboard (file photo)
Image: AP/PA Images

THE CAPTAIN OF a scuba diving boat that caught fire off the coast of California and left 34 people dead last year has been charged with manslaughter.

The Conception was on a three-day excursion in the Pacific Ocean when the fire broke out around 3am in Platt’s Harbor off Santa Cruz Island.

The blaze, the worst maritime disaster in modern Californian history, broke out while all six crew members and 33 passengers were asleep. The cause of the fire is still unknown.

Five crew members escaped and took refuge on a boat called The Grape Escape, anchored nearby. Two suffered minor injuries.

Yesterday, a federal jury said that Jerry Nehl Boylan, 67, captain of the Conception, “was responsible for the safety and security of the vessel, its crew, and its passengers”.

He was charged with 34 counts of manslaughter due to “his misconduct, negligence, and inattention to his duties”, according to a statement from the central California prosecutor’s office.

In the statement, Boylan is criticised for failing to have a night watchman, as required by federal law, and for not organising the training and evacuation drills necessary to respond to possible fires.

When the fire broke out on the night of 2 September, five crew members tried to reach the 33 passengers and one crew member sleeping in the lower deck but jumped overboard after they were unable to open a forward window and were overwhelmed by smoke.

The fire was so intense that firefighters were unable to board the 22 metre vessel, which sank as they tried to extinguish the blaze.

The boat had been on a three-day diving excursion around the Channel Islands, off the coast of Santa Barbara in southern California.

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The blaze broke out on the last day of the trip, as the boat was anchored off Santa Cruz Island.

“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,” said US attorney Nick Hanna.

Boylan was charged under a relatively uncommon criminal provision specific to seamen and people in related fields that opens the category to prosecution for negligence resulting in death.

If convicted, Boylan faces a 10-year prison sentence per charge of manslaughter.

© AFP 2020

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