Santa Cruz Island, California: Captain sentenced to four years in prison after 2019 dive boat fire that killed 34 people

Damian Dovarganes/AP

Former boat captain Jerry Boylan was one of five crew members who were able to leave the 75-foot vessel


A federal judge on Thursday sentenced a former dive boat captain to four years in prison for criminal negligence known as “sailor manslaughter” after a fire on his boat in 2019 killed 34 people.

Jerry Nehl Boylan, who faced up to 10 years in prison, was convicted in 2023 of a federal crime of misconduct or neglect of a ship's officer.

The fire broke out on the morning of Labor Day while the boat was anchored near Santa Cruz Island, the largest of California's Channel Islands, about 25 miles from the mainland.

Boylan, 70, was one of five crew members to leave the 75-foot vessel The Conception and the first to leave the ship, according to prosecutors. According to police, 33 passengers and one crew member died below deck from smoke inhalation.

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California, the victims were sleeping below deck when the fire broke out.

Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/AP

34 people died in the boat fire.

Robert Sumwalt, then chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said it was the deadliest maritime accident in nearly 70 years.

Prosecutors said Boylan did not attempt to fight the fire or rescue passengers, did not conduct adequate fire drills or train crew and did not set up a night watch.

“As the jury found, this tragedy could have been avoided if Mr. Boylan had simply fulfilled the duties assigned to him,” U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said in a statement at the time. “We hope today’s verdict brings some comfort and closure to the victims’ families.”

Estrada said Thursday that Boylan could have taken steps to prevent the fatal accident.

“Had this defendant trained and trained his crew only in the firefighting equipment that was on the ship…including hoses, including pumps with unlimited water supplies, if he had trained them in the use of that equipment, this tragedy could have been avoided.” Estrada said at a press conference.

“If he had been conducting night patrol, a basic measure to keep someone awake at night to catch when something went wrong, that person could have caught that fire, tried to stop it, tried to warn the victims,” he said.

Susana Solano Rosas, whose three daughters died in the fire, expressed relief at the conviction but disappointment at the length of Boylan's sentence. She held up a poster of her loved ones at Thursday's press conference.

“I have lost my faith in our justice system that we have here in our country because I would have expected at least ten years, but we have to accept what it is,” said Solano Rosas.

CNN contacted Boylan's attorney for comment but did not receive a response. In 2019, an attorney for boat owner Truth Aquatics said a crew member checked the area where the fire was believed to be concentrated before it ignited.

NTSB investigators said the fire could have been caused by cellphones and batteries charging overnight, although the agency could not clearly determine the cause.

Anna Harden

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