Cory Byrd said he still has nightmares about the smoke.
In them, he is back in the cabin of the Express Shuttle II, scrambling to reach the white rectangle of an open door. The smoke was so thick, he said, you could barely see an outstretched hand. He remembers tripping over a chair, his heart jumping as flames crackled in the engine room below.
Byrd said he, a fellow deckhand and the captain were the only people aboard when the ship was destroyed by the fire in October 2004. They had just dropped off dozens of passengers at a casino boat anchored off the shore of Port Richey half an hour before.
More than a decade later, another of the company's shuttle boats caught fire on Sunday in the Pithlachascotee River, this time with 50 passengers on board. One woman, 42-year-old Carrie Dempsey, a mother of two from Lutz, died at the hospital hours after escaping the burning ship.
"Safety was not a concern a lot of times," Byrd said, recalling his time at the company, now called Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz. "I barely made it off the ship myself. I almost fell through the floor into the fire."
Tropical Breeze said it is not sure what caused the fire Sunday on the Island Lady. A spokeswoman said Tuesday the latest blaze was not connected to the 2004 incident, after which, she said, the company made changes to its operations.
Beth Fifer, the Tropical Breeze spokeswoman, declined to confirm Byrd's employment with the company. He provided the Tampa Bay Times an image of his company identification badge and his account closely tracks a report from the National Transportation Safety Board.
The NTSB found the flames from the earlier fire were sparked by a busted fuel line that sprayed diesel fuel on an engine.
Investigators determined that the cruise operator did not have a formal preventive maintenance program, which could have identified the severity of an ongoing issue with fuel lines before the fire. The NTSB report also said the company had a faulty fire detection system, and that the crew was not well-trained on marine firefighting, opting to open a hatch to the engine room, which may have allowed more oxygen to feed the fire.
Byrd is not named in the report, which identifies crew members only by ages and position. At the time, according to the report, the first deckhand was 19. Byrd said that was him, a couple months into the job. He ended up leaving the company shortly after the fire.
Fifer said Tropical Breeze has daily maintenance now and fire training it shares with the U.S. Coast Guard.
"I don't even remember 2004," Fifer said. "You're asking me to go back 14 years, and it's a dead issue."
But the old fire is still sharp in Byrd's mind.
He and the other two men on board were rescued by an off-duty Coast Guard member in a personal boat, Byrd said. They got about 50 yards away before the Express Shuttle II was swallowed by flames.
"The whole boat lit up like a freakin' firecracker," he said. "That boat got so hot, you could feel it almost burning your skin."
The NTSB determination on the cause of the fire did not surprise Byrd. He knew the crew had several issues with the same engine and fuel lines before. It seemed like something was always breaking on the boat, he said.
When the fire started, Byrd said, he and the other deckhand spotted smoke coming through the floor. They alerted the captain, and Byrd remembers trying to hit a switch to turn on water for an on-board hose. The switch panel, he said, collapsed into the wall when he reached for it, the fire growing too quickly.
Byrd said he was later treated for smoke inhalation. He now works as a self-employed notary.
Looking back, he said, that day could have been much worse.
"We barely made it off," Byrd said. "If we had passengers like they had (on Sunday), they wouldn't have all made it off."
Contact Zachary T. Sampson at email@example.com or (727) 893–8804. Follow @ZackSampson.