Remember last year’s deadly Labor Day fire on the boat named Conception? A federal grand jury finally indicted its captain, Jerry Boylan, age 67, on 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter. Of the 34 wrongful deaths, 33 were passengers; one was a member of the crew. This disaster that occurred on September 2, 2019, during Labor Day weekend, is regarded as one of the worst maritime disasters in recent U.S. maritime history.
If convicted of this crime, Captain Boylan faces up to ten (10) years in prison for each count of seaman’s manslaughter. However, in such multiple counts, convicted defendants have usually served much less time in prison.
Meanwhile, the boat’s owner, reportedly Glen Fritzler and his company, Truth Aquatics, have been the object of investigations by multiple government agencies that commenced shortly after the boat burned and sank.
As would be expected, Fritzler and his company also have been sued by the relatives of the deceased passengers. These are civil lawsuits seeking money damages for wrongful death including for loss of love, society, support and income. No criminal charges are known to be filed so far against Fritzler, even though the Los Angeles Times (December 2, 2020, California Section, at B1) reported that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) criticized the boat’s operator for failing to adhere to necessary safety practices.
Raising public outcry even further was the finding of the NTSB after a hearing that revealed that many of the victims of this horrific fire were awake, some victims wearing their shoes, as the fire spread in this boat, but the victims could not escape their enclosed bunk room and perished due to smoke inhalation.
Previously, the Santa Barbara County investigators stated they believed the 34 who died did not know of the flames and smoke. But as the NTSB found, it is reasonable to believe some passenger woke from the fire, suffocating smoke or perhaps noise from the crew members who barely escaped their own death, which woke some of the passengers in the enclosed bunk area who then woke some or all of the other passengers, and then they perished aware of this dreadful situation.
As a result of this finding, the pressure to file criminal charges against Captain Boyan significantly increased.
The indictment against Captain Boyan states, “By his misconduct, negligence and inattention to his duties,” Boylan caused the death of these 34 people.
Some of the violations pointed out by the prosecutors include these three (3) violations:
- Failing to conduct sufficient crew training
- Failing to conduct sufficient fire drills
- Failing to have the required awake roving patrol
The NTSB found that the lack of having a roving crew member on watch prevented the crew from detecting the fire much sooner which could have saved lives.
It is believed that the fire may have started in the rear of the middle deck where lithium-ion batteries were being charged, leading to the assumption that these batteries may have been the cause of this fire. However, reportedly the exact cause of this tragedy is still not known notwithstanding the intensive investigation and the cause may have been these batteries, the boat’s electrical system or even some other fire source that caused this inferno.
Regardless, it is the opinion of the NTSB that the passengers trapped below deck could have escaped with earlier detection of this fire. Earlier detection should have occurred if there was an appropriate roving crew member on watch. But since no one was on watch, the crew was awakened too late once the fire spread too far.
Hopefully, reasonable safety legislation will be enacted to prevent such fires and tragedies in the future, including measures to be certain there is a roving crew member on such passenger boats when its passengers, crew and captain are sleeping; much easier and better methods to exit enclosed bunk areas, including multiple easy exits; better safety training of crews and for passengers; updated safety and electrical systems; and other steps as the NTSB determines.