TAMPA — The I-Team is uncovering that the U.S. Coast Guard was warned about suspected problems on board a casino boat months before the boat caught fire.
“I cried that night that woman died,” said a former passenger, who said she was saddened, but not surprised by the fatal casino boat fire in January.
“That did not have to happen,” she said.
She didn’t want to be identified because she’s in poor health and fears legal issues, since she recorded phone calls to the U.S. Coast Guard without permission.
In Florida, parties must be notified when calls are recorded.
She are her husband are sharing the recordings with the I-Team, because they want you to hear what happened when they called to express their concerns.
The woman made the first call the day after their cruise on September 6, 2016.
After 15 rings... a busy signal... then the call is disconnected.
When she calls back, the Coast Guard employee said, “nobody is in the office at this time.”
“Well, I really want to talk to someone,” the passenger told the Coast Guard employee.
During the 15 minute call, the former passenger describes multiple safety concerns involving both the shuttle and the main casino boat.
Those concerns included an uneven deck, a slick ramp, a hole in the side of the boat, no air conditioning, no safety briefings, inaccessible life jackets and engine trouble.
“It was probably the most unsafe vessel that we've ever been on,” the woman said.
“It sounds pretty bad to me, so I imagine they would head out there,” the Coast Guard employee told the passenger.
The next day, after hearing nothing, the former passenger called back.
“The information would have been passed on,” another U.S. Coast Guard employee said, when the passenger called back.
When asked if she could leave her name and number, so an inspector could call her back, the employee said, “I don't have anything to write with. I'm walking back. I just stepped out of the office.”
On the third day, she got 16 rings, a busy signal, then a hang-up.
When she called back, someone answered on the 14th ring.
“For whatever reason, I keep getting disconnected on your phone. I don't know if you're having phone issues?” the passenger asked.
“Always,” the U.S. Coast Guard employee replied, while laughing.
The passenger then went on to report that both the shuttle and the actual cruise ship had engine trouble.
“Things like locked up life jackets, we don't like that. you're talking about engine trouble."
“The area of responsibility here in St. Pete is very big,” said Lt. Nate Herring.
He says the St. Petersburg Coast Guard Sector regulates and inspects more than 300 small commercial vessels, including the casino boat and shuttle.
Every boat that carries at least six passengers, where at least one passenger pays, is regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard.
He said he couldn't talk about the couple's calls since the fatal fire is still under investigation, but he did stress the importance of the public reporting concerns.
“Because we don't have Coast Guard inspectors and investigators that are on those vessels 24/7, it's important that the public reach out to us,” Lt. Herring said.
Records show the coast guard inspected the casino boat six days after the last call, but they didn't find any violations.
The report, which ABC Action News obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, said the only issue was the volume of the speaker system used to deliver safety briefings, and the boat operator was able to increase volume at time of the inspection.
The Coast Guard Member who conducted the inspection’s name was redacted, but they were identified on the document as an “Apprentice Marine Inspector”.
Records show that the shuttle, which caught fire was never inspected.
The couple says they were not informed of the result of their complaints.
“They said they were going to call us back, but they never did,” said the caller’s husband.
“It was like they just patted us on the head and sent us down the road,” the passenger said.
The U.S. Coast Guard says calling their office is the best way to report a concern, since they still can't even receive tips about local boats or captains online.
If you are troubled by a local vessel or captain, you can reach the Tampa Coast Guard Office at (813) 228-2191, then choose “3” for the inspections department or “6” for the investigations department.
If you need to report a complaint after hours, contact the St. Petersburg Sector office at (727) 824-7500.
Congressman Gus Bilarakis says he'll take action if the investigation reveals that the Coast Guard didn’t properly handle problems or complaints before the fire.
If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org