Maintenance, training gaps cited in fatal Florida casino boat fire


A failed raw-water pump likely caused a fatal 2018 fire aboard a Florida casino shuttle boat, according to federal investigators, who attributed the incident to maintenance and training shortcomings.

The 72-foot Island Lady was underway to the offshore Tropical Breeze Casino when it caught fire and burned to the waterline on Jan. 14 at about 1615 near Port Richey, Fla. The captain intentionally grounded the boat in knee-deep water, a move the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said probably saved lives.

There were 53 passengers, crew and casino employees on board at the time, and 15 people required medical attention. One passenger died later that night from smoke inhalation. The vessel, valued at $450,000, was destroyed.

According to the NTSB, the probable cause of the fire was an “ineffective preventive maintenance program” by parent company Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz LLC, and “insufficient guidance regarding the response to engine high-temperature conditions, which resulted in the captain’s continued operation of an engine that was overheating due to a cooling water pump failure.”

The lack of fire detection equipment in Island Lady’s lazarette contributed to the spread of the flames, the agency said.

Although the NTSB did not declare the Island Lady incident a major marine casualty, it closely mirrored a 2004 fire aboard Express Shuttle II, another casino shuttle operated by the same parent company. In that case, the NTSB determined that a preventative maintenance program could have identified fuel line problems that led to the fire.

The twin-screw Island Lady left its dock in Port Richey at about 1600 for the nine-mile crossing to Tropical Breeze I anchored in international waters. The captain turned around after receiving a port engine high-temperature alarm shortly after departure.

Faced with an overheating engine, the captain left it idling rather than shutting it down. As it idled, the engine kept producing “excessive heat” that ignited the exhaust tubing and wood throughout the lazarette, the NTSB said. Smoke and fire spread throughout the vessel as the captain prepared to beach it.

Investigators believe plastic hoses functioning as fuel level indicators melted, releasing diesel that exacerbated the fire. The system also did not have automatic shutoff valves.

Crew, employees and passengers escaped the burning vessel by jumping overboard and wading or crawling several hundred feet to shore. Carrie Dempsey, 42, of Lutz, Fla., died at a hospital about six hours after the fire. The medical examiner for Pasco and Pinellas counties determined Dempsey died from angioedema — swelling of the tissue — caused by smoke inhalation. Her tongue and larynx were severely swollen, according to autopsy results.

NTSB investigators determined that crewmembers were unprepared to fight the fire and trained irregularly. Although the vessel was not required to have fire detection equipment in the unmanned spaces where the fire intensified, these components would have given crew earlier warning. Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz also never specified how captains should respond to high-temperature engine alarms.

The U.S. Coast Guard does not require small passenger vessels such as Island Lady to have preventative maintenance programs. But after the Express Shuttle II fire in 2004, Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz said it created just such a program. The latest fire, according to the NTSB, suggests those efforts were ineffective.

“The company’s lack of inspections and infrequent maintenance likely resulted in undetected, wear-related damage causing the port engine’s raw-water pump to fail,” the NTSB said. “If Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz had followed Caterpillar’s recommended maintenance schedule for Island Lady’s propulsion engines, the failed raw-water cooling pump would have been inspected and likely replaced.”

The NTSB urged the Coast Guard to require fire detection systems in unmanned spaces, and to issue a marine safety bulletin highlighting the importance of using approved components for fuel tank indicator systems. The agency also recommended that the Coast Guard require domestic passenger vessel operators to establish preventative maintenance systems and safety management systems.

In the meantime, the NTSB called on Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz to improve firefighting training and step up its maintenance system to comply with manufacturers’ standards.

A representative for Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz did not respond to a request for comment about the NTSB findings.

By Professional Mariner Staff