Tropical Breeze, Coast Guard criticized in fatal casino boat fire

A National Transportation Safety Board hearing was held Tuesday in the Jan. 14, 2018, fire aboard the casino boat Island Lady that led to the death of a passenger. [Courtesy of Robert Handzus]
A National Transportation Safety Board hearing was held Tuesday in the Jan. 14, 2018, fire aboard the casino boat Island Lady that led to the death of a passenger. [Courtesy of Robert Handzus]
Published Dec. 11, 2018

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday released the results of its investigation into a casino ferry boat fire off Port Richey earlier this year that left one woman dead and sent 15 passengers to the hospital.

The report made recommendations to the boat owners and the Coast Guard that the safety board said could prevent future tragedies.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Mom who died after casino boat fire had complained of breathing problems

The board found that Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz, LLC,, owners of the Island Lady, failed to properly maintain the 72-foot wooden-hulled T-boat, failed to install fire detection equipment where the blaze broke out and failed to provide proper training for crew in how to deal with the high engine temperatures that caused the fire or how to cope with the emergency once the fire broke out.

The board also chided the Coast Guard for not requiring fire detection systems in unmanned spaces of small passenger vessels with machinery or other potential heat sources and for failing to issue a marine safety information bulletin warning that only approved material and components should be used in fuel tank level indicator systems.

The accident resulted in the death of Carrie Dempsey, a 42-year-old mother of two from Lutz, who succumbed to inhaling fumes from the flames. The incident incensed the chairman of the board, especially because boat company officials failed to make improvements after another boat caught fire in 2004 in nearly the same location.

"This is just absurd," said safety board chairman Robert Sumwalt during a two-hour hearing in Washington D.C.. "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.

"And here is 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."

Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz officials did not return calls for comment. Coast Guard officials said they could not comment because their own pending investigation into the incident is still ongoing.

• • •

The Island Lady, built in 1994, passed a Coast Guard inspection in March 2017, according to agency records. The inspection was good until November.

But long before that expiration date, on Jan. 14, the former whale watching vessel-turned-casino ferry departed the Port Richey dock at about 3:30 p.m. for a Sunday cruise to a waiting casino boat in the Gulf of Mexcio.

There were 53 people aboard, including 36 passengers, Capt. Michael Batten, three deck hands and several Tropical Breeze employees. A short while later, as the vessel increased speed, Batten received an alarm warning him about high temperatures in a system designed to cool the port, or left, engine.

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So began a series of events caused by previous maintenance issues made worse by Batten's decision to keep the troublesome engine going and use the functioning starboard engine to turn back toward shore.

However the safety board praised the captain for turning the boat back to shore, which "increased the likelihood of survival for those onboard."

As the boat was engulfed by flames, the passengers — half of them over the age of 60 — started jumping into the cold, shallow water and wading to shore.

• • •

The board also made these findings:

• Tropical Breeze's lack of guidance regarding engine high-temperature alarms led to the captain leaving the port engine idling, rather than shutting it down, which led to the fire.

• The failure to require a fire detection and suppression system in an unmanned space containing engine exhaust tubing prevented early detection of the fire in the storage compartment, and a swifter response to it.

• The captain's decisions to turn back toward the dock and then beach the Island Lady close to shore were prudent moves and increased the likelihood that those on board would survive.

• The failure of the port engine's raw-water pump led to the overheating of the engine and exhaust tubing. The pump's problems were caused by Tropical Breeze failure to follow Caterpillar's recommended maintenance schedule. • The Island Lady's crew had insufficient firefighting training. • The use of plastic tubing for local tank level indicators and lack of automatic shutoff valves on the fuel tanks resulted in the release of diesel fuel, which contributed to the severity of the fire.

• The Coast Guard did not correctly assess whether the Island Lady's fuel system complied with applicable regulations during an inspection of the vessel.

• • •

As a result of its investigation, the safety board issued four safety recommendations: two to the boat owners and two to the Coast Guard:

The board recommended Tropical Breeze create an oversight system to ensure its maintenance program complies with manufacturers' recommended preventive maintenance program. And it recommended the company revise its marine firefighting training program.

The board also told the Coast Guard that it should require fire detection systems in small passenger vessel spaces with machinery and other heat sources that have no crew stationed there. And it recommended that the agency should issue a Marine Safety Information Bulletin addressing the need to only use approved materials and components in fuel tank level-indicator systems.

In addition to the new recommendations, the board also repeated two earlier recommendations to the Coast Guard, one issued 16 years ago and one issued six years ago:

The board recommended that the Coast Guard require companies operating domestic passenger vessels to have a preventive maintenance program for all systems affecting the safe operation of vessels, including hull, mechanical and electrical systems. That recommendation was first made in 2002.

The board also repeated its 2012 recommendation that the Coast Guard require operators of U.S.-flagged vessels to create safety maintenance systems.

"All over the country this morning, crew training is either being conducted, or it is being neglected," Sumwalt said." Manufacturer's recommended maintenance programs are being followed or they are being disregarded, leaving the safety of vessels and their passengers at risk."

Tampa attorney Steve Yerrid, who represented Dempsey's two children in a lawsuit settled two months ago against the boat's owners, said the board's findings confirmed the allegations of wrongdoing and negligence. "The NTSB seems to confirm that unequivocally and very, very explicitly," he said.

The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

Contact Howard Altman at or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman