Captain of California dive boat charged with 34 counts of manslaughter
Police line tape (Shutterstock)

Los Angeles (AFP) - The captain of a scuba diving boat that caught fire last year off the coast of California, leaving 34 people dead, was charged Tuesday with manslaughter, one count for each victim.

The blaze -- the worst maritime disaster in modern California history -- broke out while all six crew members and 33 passengers were asleep. The cause of the fire is still unknown.

A federal jury said that Jerry Nehl Boylan, 67, captain of the Conception, "was responsible for the safety and security of the vessel, its crew, and its passengers."

He was charged with 34 counts of manslaughter due to "his misconduct, negligence, and inattention to his duties," according to a statement from the central California prosecutor's office.

In the statement, Boylan is criticized for failing to have a night watchman, as required by federal law, and for not organizing the training and evacuation drills necessary to respond to possible fires.

When the fire broke out on the night of September 2, five crew members tried to reach the 33 passengers and one crew member sleeping in the lower deck but jumped overboard after they were unable to open a forward window and were overwhelmed by smoke.

The fire was so intense that firefighters were unable to board the 75-foot (22 meter) vessel, which sank as they tried to extinguish the blaze.

The boat had been on a three-day diving excursion around the Channel Islands, off the coast of Santa Barbara in southern California.

The blaze broke out on the last day of the trip, as the boat was anchored off Santa Cruz Island.

"As a result of the alleged failures of Captain Boylan to follow well-established safety rules, a pleasant holiday dive trip turned into a hellish nightmare as passengers and one crew member found themselves trapped in a fiery bunkroom with no means of escape," said US attorney Nick Hanna.

Boylan was charged under a relatively uncommon criminal provision specific to seamen and people in related fields that opens the category to prosecution for negligence resulting in death.

If convicted, Boylan faces a 10-year prison sentence per charge of manslaughter.