The Wheelhouse Scoop: Too close to home – Captain in dive boat fire sentenced

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THE CONCEPTION shortly before it sank. The 75-foot recreational diving vessel, Conception, with 33 passengers and six crew aboard, was anchored in Platts Harbor off Santa Cruz Island when it caught fire in the early morning of Sept. 2, 2019. All 33 passengers and one crewmember died of smoke inhalation after they were trapped in the berthing area while a fire raged on the deck above. Both exits from the berthing area led to the fire and smoke-filled enclosed area above. PHOTO COURTESY Ventura County Fire Department)
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BY MERIT MCCRAE

This past week Jerry Boylan was sentenced to 4 years in prison followed by 3 years supervised release for his part in the fire aboard the dive boat Conception out of Santa Barbara. I remember I was still writing to meet the Monday morning deadline in the wee hours when the first news of the fire that would kill 34 people arrived.

With a narrow peak at the ocean through my window, the view looks right back into Platt Harbor where the tragedy was still unfolding. But that morning the fog was thick. First on scene were harbor patrol vessels from Santa Barbara, I understand.

Early audio recordings told a completely different story than the initial news told. While the first days following had the story all wrong, in the following weeks it would gradually come to match the situation that had indeed unfolded. Yet today the narrative is once again warping toward what is easiest for the public to believe.

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Boylan, is now being cast as a captain who abandoned ship without a thought of those trapped below deck, he and the surviving crew making no attempt to rescue them. -Completely untrue, given the inside scoop that circulated among the crews at the landing.

Here’s what I heard from crews in the following days and would match what investigators would ultimately uncover.

In the wee hours of the A.M. the final crewman awake had hit his bunk without waking anyone shortly before the fire would start.

Investigation findings were consistent with local knowledge. It was not part of Truth Aquatics’ practice to stand up scheduled deck watches while double anchored in protected anchorages for the night. Over the years this may have been a factor in several minor groundings.

Among the many risks inherent in taking the public SCUBA diving, the likelihood of disaster in a protected anchorage overnight seem small by comparison to that involved with this intrinsically death defying activity. SCUBA diving safely requires an unnatural mix of academic and physical skills simultaneously.

Truth Aquatics boats had a reputation for being immaculately maintained to the highest standards, personally supervised by owner Glen Fritzler. Their reputation regarding diver safety and rescue was among the best.

Capt. Jerry Boylan personally had a reputation among the fleet for being attentive to vessel risks, personally standing a night watch when adverse conditions warranted. Crew expected to be in top condition for dive-mastering and rescue watch – making sure divers were well prepared and accounted for on and off the boat – were allowed to get a full night’s shut-eye.

Sharing a dock finger with Jerry and boat Conception for over a decade, we were cordial for years, but a strange incident changed that. I’d sent my Chesapeake Bay retriever onto his boat, one which previously he himself for years had his Dalmatian aboard, to learn to climb a ladder.

Boylan wasn’t having it, ordered the dog off his boat and barely spoke with me at all for years after. To this day I’m still unsure what triggered that response, but it was what it was.

The following is the story as I heard it.

That fateful morning the crew asleep in the wheelhouse would wake to flames engulfing the after part of the cabin. Crewmen jumped to the main deck on the bow and attempted to work to the back deck but found no passage through those flames. One crewman broke a leg in the process.

Boylan stayed behind to get out a may-day call on channel 16, then with smoke filling the wheelhouse, jumped clear into the water.

One or more of the crew had assisted the injured man and all ended up overboard. Boyan and others re-boarded the vessel from the stern and were unsuccessful in their attempt to fire the firefighting and washdown pumps. Flames blocked access forward.

With an inflatable that had been tied to the stern for the night the crew made their way to a nearby yacht in the anchorage. There a couple was fast asleep and they woke them looking for gear to save those below deck.

Not finding any, the able bodied returned to the burning Conception to again attempt a rescue, basically empty handed.

Meanwhile the owner of the yacht made a second mayday call from his vessel, one responders mistakenly attributed to Boylan and the boat Conception. In that mistaken context the yachtsman’s naive words carried an incriminating message of neglect.

A primary oversight never mentioned in the media was Boylan and crew did not grab the fire-axe from the wheelhouse in the chaos of the encroaching flames. This left them basically helpless to rescue those below deck.

In the following days the launch ramp area adjacent the landing filled with mobile response units from a multitude of investigative agencies, including USCG, NTSB and more. Inspectors carefully went through the other two Truth Aquatics vessels, interviewed crews and contacted past crews, examining records, trying to understand all aspects that could have contributed to the disastrous and tragic outcome.

The public would decorate fully 50 yards of the walkway between the lot and the landing with offerings of condolence, flowers, candles, posters and more creating a sad memorial for those lives lost that morning.

Today, throughout the nation, charter boat crews are proving out escape ability under a stop-watch before Coast Guard inspectors. Additional hatches have been installed through the decks of some of the fleet as needed. New technology in fire alarm systems has been adopted, and more.

Far from being the mal-intentioned villain Boylan is currently being portrayed as by the media, he’s a man who allowed slack vessel safety policy to prevail under his watch and then was caught flat-footed as disaster unfolded aboard the vessel he loved.

Those that perished were members of a charter group that had been foundational for Truth Aquatics, chartering with them for many decades prior. Many were close friends of the owners and crew. Himself the son of a coastguardsman, Boylan had skippered with that company for decades.

In general, the big takeaways have been: follow the Coast Guard requirements. Post required watches. Practice emergency drills so even the newest crewmen are fully familiar with procedure, safety equipment locations and operation. Provide for adequate manning to fulfill those needs.

Lives may depend on it. Livelihoods and the public’s opportunity to continue to enjoy our rich marine resources do too.

Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California partyboat captain, he is a marine research scientist with the Dr. Milton Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He serves on the Groundfish Advisory sub-Panel of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, the Santa Barbara Harbor Commission, The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council and the CCA-Cal State Board. He can be reached at: merit@wonews.com.

 

 

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