PORT RICHEY, Fla. — Thousands of people each year get on Florida’s casino boats, like the one that caught fire last month, assuming they're safe and regularly inspected.
But the ABC Action News I-Team has uncovered many of the boats have histories of maintenance problems and safety issues — yet little is done to keep them off the water.
“I would assume that they check the boat and make sure everything is running correctly,” Joan Gibbons said.
She went on casino boats at the Island Breeze Casino in Port Richey for years and never worried about safety when she got on the boat. But that changed on the day she almost died.
Within minutes of pulling away from the dock, smoke poured from the engine room of the 24-year-old Island Lady shuttle boat, which the casino bought in 2015.
“And I'm thinking, where are the life jackets?” said Gibbons. “Nobody's ever offered a life jacket.”
Fire engulfed the boat in moments.
“They said jump off the boat or you're gonna burn with the boat,” Gibbons said.
50 passengers — none wearing life jackets — jumped into the frigid Gulf.
42-year-old Carrie Dempsey died. More than a dozen others were injured.
“It does not appear that they're very well regulated,” said attorney Adam Brum, who represents Gibbons and several other clients.
Brum is Morgan and Morgan’s primary maritime attorney. He believes lax oversight allowed the company to violate safety rules.
“Everyone's just trusting this company to give them safe passage,” he said.
The Federal Aviation Authority requires maintenance logs and weekly inspections of commercial jets. But the U.S. Coast Guard is only required to inspect commercial boats once a year, unless there's a reportable incident.
In October, the Island Lady crashed into its dock after a transmission cable broke, tearing up the passenger waiting area. "Lack of maintenance" was cited as the cause, but the boat was allowed to resume operations the next day.
Last March, inspectors discovered a blocked fuel-shut off valve, a missing fire extinguisher and electrical issues on the boat.
“They're really blessed that there wasn't more loss of life,” said fourth generation Captain Dylan Hubbard who runs Hubbard’s marina, which operates fishing, sightseeing and dolphin cruises.
Hubbard says his passengers get safety briefings, and his crew gets lots of training.
“If you don't practice it, you're not gonna know what to do or how to react,” said Hubbard.
He says safety compliance is often based on the honor system.
“You want to make sure the captain and crew are very experienced and know what to do when,” said Hubbard.
The U.S. Coast Guard is stretched thin, regulating 35,000 commercial boats in Florida alone, in addition to rescuing boaters, patrolling the coastline and seizing drugs being smuggled into the country.
In 2004, another shuttle boat owned by the same Port Richey gambling operation caught fire. Crew members were rescued by a passing boater.
The U.S. Coast Guard and the NTSB determined then that the company, at the time "Sun Cruz", didn't have a preventive maintenance program.
The company continued to operate, despite dozens of incidents — ranging from fires, to running aground, to passenger deaths.
Tropical Breeze officials didn't respond to several requests for comment.
“They started up just a few days later,” Adam Brum said of the business.
The 27-year-old Tropical Breeze I casino boat itself hauls passengers into the Gulf and back multiple times a day.
During its last two inspections , the Coast Guard found maintenance problems affecting its firefighting system and forced it to replace missing life jackets.
Gibbons refuses to go on another casino cruise, unless the government takes action.
“Make some laws and enforce them. Make sure they're checked,” she said.
The I-Team pushed the U.S. Coast Guard for answers as to why the businesses boats are allowed to continue to operate after so many violations.
They say they can’t comment, since it’s an ongoing investigation.
Congressman Gus Bilarikis, who represents the district where the fire happened, has been in touch with the U.S. Coast Guard.
He says he wants to make sure there’s enough manpower and he is considering strengthening inspection laws.
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