The dive boat Conception on fire off Santa Cruz Island early Monday morning. Photo courtesy Santa Barbara County Fire Department

By Steve Gorman | Reuters

The captain of a dive boat that caught fire and sank off the California coast in 2019, killing 34 people in one of the state’s deadliest maritime disasters, was indicted on Tuesday on federal manslaughter charges, U.S. prosecutors said.

Each of the 34 seaman’s manslaughter counts returned against Jerry Nehl Boylan, 67, of Santa Barbara, carries a statutory maximum penalty of 10 years in prison if he is convicted, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles.

The indictment accuses Boylan of causing the deaths of the 33 passengers and one crew member who perished in the Labor Day weekend boat fire by way of “his misconduct, negligence, and inattention to his duties,” the prosecutors’ statement said.

The grand jury cited three specific federal safety violations — failures to assign a night watch or roving patrol aboard the boat, to conduct sufficient crew training or to conduct adequate fire drills.

The victims had been sleeping below deck aboard the 75-foot Conception when the vessel went up in flames in the early morning hours of Sept. 2, 2019, while anchored in Platt’s Harbor near Santa Cruz Island, off the Santa Barbara coast, during a sport diving expedition.

The five surviving crew members, including Boylan, had been above deck in berths behind the wheelhouse and escaped by leaping overboard as the burning boat sank into the Pacific. They told investigators that flames coming from the passenger quarters were too intense to save anyone trapped below.

Coroner investigators determined the victims died of smoke inhalation.

Following the disaster, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a safety bulletin urging limits on the use of lithium-ion batteries and chargers aboard passenger vessels. The document suggested investigators were looking into the possibility that such batteries may have ignited the Conception fire.

Neither Boylan nor his attorneys were immediately available for comment.

Federal prosecutors informed his lawyers of the indictment after it was filed, and he is expected to surrender to authorities in coming weeks, the U.S. attorney’s statement said.

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