Casino boat operator in fatal fire had maintenance, safety issues before earlier blaze

Published January 16
Updated January 17

PORT RICHEY — The casino boat operator whose shuttle caught fire Sunday, leaving one passenger dead, says it does not know what could have caused the blaze.

But federal records show the company, now called Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz, had another boat fire more than 10 years ago that was preceded by poor maintenance and insufficient training.

A spokeswoman for the company Tuesday denied any connection between the incidents.

"Who we were 14 years ago and who we are today, and what happened 14 years ago and what happened Sunday, are not relevant to each other," said Beth Fifer. She said the business had gone more than a decade without having another fire, evidence that "changes were implemented." She declined to elaborate, calling it "a dead issue."

After the 2004 blaze, the National Transportation Safety Board investigated and found several safety issues.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Mother of two dies after Port Richey boat fire

BACK STORY: More on the Pasco casino operator whose boat caught fire

PRIOR FIRE: He still has nightmares: Deckhand recalls prior casino boat fire

Fifer said that incident was "a long time ago," and the company today has daily maintenance routines and a fire training program it shares with the U.S. Coast Guard. Fifer credited the captain, Michael Batten, with working quickly Sunday to run the shuttle boat aground in the shallows of the Pithlachascotee River. The crew didn’t even hand out life jackets before passengers jumped overboard.

"If we would have taken the time to hand out life jackets," she said, "we would be talking several deaths right now."

• • •

Robert Handzus recalled fear spreading quickly Sunday on the 72-foot Island Lady.

"It was a real mess for the 70- and 80-year-olds," he said. "People were yelling out for life vests."

As the fire smoldered on both sides, the crew moved passengers from the deck to the bow. Handzus, 62, of Odessa, said he jumped 10 feet down into the water.

"I really value the captain, because he got us into three-to-four feet of water," Handzus said. "If it was five-to six-feet of water, I guarantee 20 people would have been dead."

One of the 50 passengers who jumped from the ship later died while undergoing treatment. Carrie Dempsey, a 42-year-old mother of two from Lutz, was pronounced dead at 10:42 p.m. Sunday at Bayonet Point Regional Medical Center. The cause of her death has not been released.

The boat, built in 1994, passed a Coast Guard inspection in March 2017, which was good until November 2018, according to Coast Guard records.

The Coast Guard, the NTSB, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office all launched investigations.

• • •

The fire Sunday was fast-moving and destructive, resembling the October 2004 blaze on the shuttle boat Express Shuttle II in its intensity.

The NTSB determined that fire started with a faulty fuel line that sprayed diesel fuel on the engine. Company workers had replaced fuel lines in the same engine several times in previous months, investigators found.

A formal preventive maintenance program could have helped crews detect the severity of the problem before the fire occurred, according to the NTSB report. Better training could have helped the deckhands thwart the blaze before it grew beyond control, investigators said. Instead, according to the report, they lifted a hatch, allowing oxygen to flow into the engine room. The boat also had a faulty fire detection system, according to the NTSB.

The damage was estimated at $800,000, the Express Shuttle II a total loss.

• • •

The Island Lady had a number of maintenance and inspection issues before the fire Sunday — including a broken cable and fire extinguisher bracket and improper wiring and identification — but most of them were taken care of immediately or within a few days, according to a Coast Guard Port State Information Exchange report.

Michael T. Moore of Coral Gables, a leading Florida maritime attorney, said there are some clear questions for those investigating the blaze.

"The first thing that should be looked into is if everyone on board has a life vest," Moore said.

"Generally speaking … a smaller vessel that gets people back and forth to a big vessel, everybody needs a life vest."

Investigators will also need to consider what captain’s instructions were given at the beginning of the trip, what safety measures were followed and if the boat was up to date on suggested repairs. Moore said he was surprised a fire could break out in the way described aboard a boat that had been inspected less than a year ago.

"Frankly," he said, "it strikes me as nuts."

• • •

Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz has gone by various names over the years — SunCruz, Paradise, Pair-A-Dice, Port Richey Casinos — and even as a small-town operator has occasionally garnered headlines.

Founders Alex and Mollie Kolokithas were connected to the larger gambling boat operation SunCruz, which was run by South Florida millionaire Gus Boulis, the founder of Miami Subs who was shot and killed by a mob hitman in 2001. Boulis had agreed to sell the business for $147.5 million the year before, but that agreement devolved. Later, Jack Abramoff, a former influential national lobbyist and one of the buyers of SunCruz, pleaded guilty to fraud in connection with the deal.

The Kolokithases, who had leased SunCruz boats in exchange for sharing dock space in Tampa Bay with Boulis — and splitting the profits — continued in the offshore gambling business undeterred. They fought over their right to use the SunCruz name in court with the company’s new owners while at the same time breaking off the business relationship.

The couple had started the company out of almost nothing in the mid-1990s. They had operated a gambling boat in Texas, which was shut down by a bankruptcy court in 1992. They turned to Florida and launched the Mr. Lucky gaming boat in Tarpon Springs, eventually moving on to a bigger operation in Pasco County.

In 2002, Mollie Kolokithas told a Tampa Bay Times reporter they wanted "immortality" in Port Richey, with a family business that would outlive its founders.

An obituary shows she died in 2015. But state corporate filings show the company remains in the family, and in Port Richey, with Alex Kolokithas as manager.

Fifer said it plans to open again for business this weekend.

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804.