Criminal charges loom amid 1-year anniversary of Conception boat fire that killed 34 off Santa Barbara coast

Court documents say criminal charges are imminent in the investigation of the fire that killed 34 people aboard the scuba boat Conception last year off the coast of Santa Barbara.

Marc Cota-Robles Image
Wednesday, September 2, 2020
Conception fire victims remembered on 1-year anniversary
EMBED <>More Videos

The first anniversary of the scuba boat fire that killed 34 people off Southern California has been commemorated at Santa Barbara Harbor, where the ill-fated trip began and a memorial has been put in place.

Nine days after the scuba boat Conception went down in flames with 34 people trapped below deck in one of the deadliest disasters in California maritime history, a federal grand jury began looking into whether a crime had been committed.

Now, a year after the Sept. 2 tragedy, investigations into the cause of the pre-dawn blaze and whether someone is to blame are still ongoing, though court documents say criminal charges are imminent.

The captain of the boat, who could face an unusual federal manslaughter charge, was briefed in July on the evidence prosecutors have against him. It's the type of meeting often used to persuade a suspect to plead guilty, lawyers for the boat's owners said last week in a related lawsuit.

RELATED: Conception boat fire: NTSB schedules hearing to review final report on blaze that killed 34 off Santa Barbara Coast

An attorney for Capt. Jerry Boylan and federal prosecutors declined to comment on the disclosure.

The Conception was carrying 33 passengers on a Labor Day weekend scuba diving expedition near an island off Santa Barbara. The fire broke out while passengers were sleeping and quickly swept through the vessel.

Boylan and four crew members barely escaped after trying in vain to save the others, authorities said. Boylan made a mayday call at 3:14 a.m. saying, "I can't breathe," before abandoning ship.

All the passengers and one crew member perished in the bunk room beneath deck. It's unclear if any had time to try to escape. Coroners said they died from smoke inhalation before their bodies were burned.

All six crew members were asleep when the fire broke out, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. If that's the case, it would violate Coast Guard regulations requiring a roving watch.

"The lack of a night watch was an outrageous oversight," said Jeffrey Goodman, a lawyer representing family members of nine victims.

On Wednesday morning, the first anniversary of the scuba boat fire was commemorated at Santa Barbara Harbor, where the ill-fated trip began and a memorial has been put in place.

Relatives of those who died and first responders were among those who came to view a plaque bearing the victims' names.

'Most horrific incident:' Man recalls responding to Conception boat fire on 1-year anniversary

Paul Amaral, a civilian who was woken up in the middle of the night and raced to the sea to help, recounted the deadly tragedy.

"In this case, listening to the radio traffic, knowing that people were trapped inside of a burning boat, I threw caution to the wind," said Amaral, the owner of TowBoatUS. "Absolutely the most horrific incident...We knew there couldn't be any survivors at that point, but looking for bodies."

Upon sunrise, while searching the debris field Amaral was the first to find a victim, and three more bodies were recovered.

For his efforts, Amaral received a public service award from the U.S. Coast Guard -- the second highest given to a civilian.

His heart weighs heavy for those who lost so much.

"The pain that the families must feel, what they're going through, their friends. It's just horrific. You can't forget that," Amaral said.

Amaral said just before the fire, he had recently completed a three-day dive with the boat company, Truth Aquatics. He said the owner has an excellent reputation and did everything possible to ensure safety.

A Stockton woman who lost both of her daughters and her ex-husband in the fire was at the memorial site ahead of the anniversary. Susana Solano Rosas' daughters were celebrating their father's birthday on Conception -- a diving trip they had previously went on.

One year after the tragedy, Solano Rosas is still expressing pgratitude for the outpouring of support.

"What's so important to me is to thank everyone who in the recovery efforts, in the rescue attempts, the human kindness that you see from everyone is just so amazing. To see that from others, to help in any possible way that they can," Solano Rosas said.

Solano Rosas, other families and friends of the victims will hold a private memorial event Wednesday.

Attorneys representing 4 families of victims killed in Conception boat disaster blame owner, captain

Meanwhile, legal experts said prosecutors are likely trying to apply an obscure federal law known as the Seaman's Manslaughter Statute that predates the Civil War and was enacted to punish negligent captains, engineers and pilots for deadly steamboat accidents that killed thousands.

Prosecutors would only need to prove simple negligence or misconduct on the part of the captain or crew. Conviction carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

The lawsuit filings also revealed that the company that operated the boat and the couple who own it, Glen and Dana Fritzler, have offered to settle the lawsuit with dozens of victims' family members.

Goodman said settlement discussions were preliminary and attorneys for victims were still trying to find the cause of the fire and the financial resources of the boat owners.

Families of 32 of the victims and one surviving crew member have filed claims against the Fritzler family trust and Truth Aquatics. The Fritzlers and the company in turn have filed a legal claim to shield them from damages under a maritime law that limits liability for vessel owners.

Attorney Russell Brown, who represents the Fritzlers and made the disclosures in court papers, did not return a phone call or email seeking comment.

Brown said in a report filed Friday that a federal grand jury in Los Angeles issued subpoenas to the Fritzlers and Truth Aquatics Inc. on Sept. 11 and 18 seeking records on the boat and communications related to its safety operation.

He also revealed that Boylan met with prosecutors in a meeting held routinely when "the government has concluded that it has sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges." He said "an indictment, or indictments, will be forthcoming."

Federal investigators are still working to complete what's known as an origin and cause report, which will rule if the fire was accidental, incendiary - meaning it was deliberately set - or undetermined. Authorities have said there is no indication the fire was arson.

RELATED: Timeline of deadly boat fire

The five-person NTSB will hold an Oct. 20 meeting to vote on the safety investigation's findings, as well as the blaze's probable cause and any potential recommendations.

An NTSB official has cited how difficult it was to reach an escape hatch in the Conception's bunk room, a design that has routinely met regulations. Coast Guard records show the boat had passed its two most recent safety inspections without violations.

The NTSB is a federal regulatory agency but it has no enforcement powers and can only submit its suggestions to bodies like the Federal Aviation Administration or the Coast Guard, which have repeatedly rejected some of the board's safety recommendations.

The Coast Guard has issued additional safety recommendations in the wake of the tragedy, such as limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and the use of power strips and extension cords.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.