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Transportation Officials Castigate Owners Of Casino Boat That Caught Fire, Killing 1

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday ripped into the company that owned a casino boat that caught fire off Pasco County in January, killing one woman.

Board chairman Robert Sumwalt noted the company had a similar fire on a boat fourteen years ago. He reacted after hearing testimony that the company has not improved its safety regulations since Carrie Dempsey, a 42-year-old mother of two from Lutz, died after the flaming boat ran aground earlier this year.

"It's easy to say one passenger died. It's just an abstract number. But it's not an abstract number. This person who died was a single mother, she left behind a pair of twins, a boy and a girl, who were 12 years old, who now do not have parents," Sumwalt told the board.

"And here's a company that had the opportunity to learn from a tragedy in 2004. And they did absolutely nothing. And after it happened twice? What have they done? This is absolutely absurd."


The Jan. 14 fire broke out because a fuel leak that sparked a fire. The captain was lauded for turning the boat around and running it aground on a beach, allowing the 50 passengers to jump into the water. Dempsey later died in a hospital.

The company was ripped by board members for not tracking the number of hours the engine ran, so it couldn't keep tabs on when sensitive engine parts needed to be replaced. The company, Tropical Breeze Casino,  was also castigated for not sufficiently training the crew to respond to emergencies.

"The passengers who went out that Sunday, they went out to gamble," Sumwalt said. "But they did not expect to gamble with their lives. And that's what happened. Because this organization did not have an effective preventative maintence program in effect."

The NTSB board plans to recommend that companies operating small passenger vessels have improved safety maintenance systems. They also plan to ask the Coast Guard to overhaul its marine firefighting training programs.

Here's an excerpt from their report:

Lack  of  company  guidance  regarding  engine  high-temperature  alarms:After  the captain received a high-temperature alarm for the port engine’s jacket-water system, he did not shut down the engine but instead left it idling. Doing so allowed the overheating engine to continue to generate excessive heat, which in turn affected the exhaust tubes and ignited their surrounding structures. Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz did not provide specific guidance to its vessel captains about how to respond to high-temperature alarms. Lack  of  fire-detection  in  unmanned  spaces  with  exhaust  tubing:Although  federal regulations  require  small  passenger  vessels  to  have  fire  detection  and  suppression  systems  in spaces  containing  propulsion  machinery  (such  as  engine  rooms),  the  regulations  do  not  require such systems in unmanned spaces with engine exhaust tubing. The fire on board the Island Lady most likely started in the lazarette―an unmanned space aft of the engine room―through which the exhaust tubes led toward the vessel’s stern. Because there was no fire in the engine room initially, activating the vessel’s fixed fire-suppression system for that space would have served no purpose;  further,  activation would  have  caused  the  vessel  to  needlessly  lose  all  available propulsion during the emergency. Insufficient preventive maintenance:Although Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz stated that it implemented a preventive maintenance program after a previous fire on board a company vessel (the Express Shuttle II) in response to an NTSB safety recommendation, the quality of the program was insufficient. The US Coast Guard does not require small passenger vessels to have preventive maintenance programs and, importantly, even when such programs are voluntarily in place (such as in this case), the Coast Guard provides no enforcement oversight. Insufficient  crew  training  and  documentation:The  investigation  revealed  that  the Island Lady crewmembers lacked sufficient understanding of firefighting principles and that their training drills were infrequent or not completed. In addition, records pertaining to crew training drills and daily maintenance checklists were kept only on board the vessel and were lost in the fire; no duplicate records were kept ashore. Inappropriate  material  and  design  of  fuel  tank  level-indicator  system:Counter  to Title 46 Code of Federal Regulations182.440 (a)(7), the Island Lady’s fuel tanks were equipped with plastic hoses used as fuel level indicators; further, the system did not have automatic shutoff valves.  As  a  result,  during  the  fire,  the  plastic  material  melted  and  the  release  of  diesel  fuel exacerbated the fire.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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