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Compensation to families of people killed in the Conception fire

LOS ANGELES — Prosecutors are seeking compensation for the families of 34 people killed in a 2019 dive boat fire that was the deadliest maritime disaster in recent U.S. history.

A judge will determine the amount Thursday during a hearing in federal court in Los Angeles. The action comes nearly five years after the Sept. 2, 2019, tragedy off the coast of central California prompted changes to shipping regulations, congressional reforms and several ongoing civil lawsuits.


What you need to know

  • The captain of the Conception, Jerry Boylan, was convicted last year of one count of misconduct or neglect of a ship’s officer after a 10-day trial in federal court in downtown Los Angeles
  • The Conception was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, 25 miles south of Santa Barbara, when it caught fire before dawn on the last day of a three-day excursion, sinking less than 100 feet from shore
  • Thirty-three passengers and one crew member perished, trapped in a bunk below deck
  • Although the exact cause of the fire remains undetermined, prosecutors accused Boylan of failing to post the required night watch and never properly training his crew in firefighting

The captain of the Conception, Jerry Boylan, was convicted last year of one count of misconduct or neglect of a ship’s officer after a 10-day trial in federal court in downtown Los Angeles. The charge is a pre-Civil War statute colloquially known as manslaughter that was designed to hold steamship captains and crew responsible for maritime disasters.

He was sentenced to four years in prison and three years of supervised release. He is out on bail and must report to the Bureau of Prisons by August 8. His appeal is ongoing.

The Conception was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, 25 miles south of Santa Barbara, when it caught fire before dawn on the final day of a three-day excursion and sank less than 100 feet from shore.

Thirty-three passengers and one crew member perished, trapped in a bunk below deck. Among the dead were the deckhand, who had landed his dream job; an environmental scientist who did research in Antarctica; a pair of ball trotters; a Singaporean computer scientist; and a family of three sisters, their father and his wife.

Boylan was the first to abandon ship and jump overboard. Four crew members who joined him also survived.

Although the exact cause of the fire remains undetermined, prosecutors faulted Boylan for failing to post the required night watch and never properly training his crew in firefighting. The lack of a roving watch meant the fire could spread undetected across the 75-foot boat.

But Boylan’s federal public defender tried to pin the blame on boat owner Glen Fritzler, who with his wife owns Truth Aquatics Inc., which operated the Conception and two other dive boats, often around the Channel Islands.

They alleged that Fritzler was responsible for failing to train the crew in firefighting and other safety measures, as well as creating a lax shipping culture they called the “Fritzler Way”, where no captain working for him posted a roving watch.

The Fritzlers have not spoken publicly about the tragedy since an interview with a local TV station a few days after the fire. Their lawyers never responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Three days after the fire, Truth Aquatics filed suit under a pre-Civil War provision of maritime law that allows it to limit its liability to the value of the remains of the boat, which was a total loss. The tried-and-true legal maneuver has been successfully used by the owners of the Titanic and other ships and requires the Fritzlers to show they were not at fault.

That case is pending, as are others filed by victims’ families against the Coast Guard for what they claim was lax enforcement of the roving watch requirement.

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