Crash unsettles gamblers - Tuesday 12th of April 2005

It was past 4 p.m., and Capt. Rick Turner of the Friendship IV wanted to get going. He had to shuttle 149 gambling-hungry passengers from his catamaran to the Ocean Jewel , a casino cruise waiting 30 minutes away in the Gulf of Mexico.

As the captain guided the boat out of the clogged John's Pass channel Saturday, a group of smaller boats were rushing in. Witnesses said they wanted to beat a 4:30 p.m. weigh-in deadline for a kingfishing tournament.

Just after 4:15, one of the smaller boats suddenly cut into the path of the 80-foot catamaran, witnesses said.

Turner had moments to react. He could either plow forward and risk hitting the boat, or veer right, into a barrier at the base of John's Pass Bridge.

Turner slammed the catamaran into the wood and concrete fenders protecting the bridge.

The incident could have easily turned deadly, Coast Guard officials say. Had Turner collided with the 25-foot power boat, lives likely would have been lost, said Coast Guard Marine Safety Lt. Heath Hartley.

"To the small boat, it could've been tragic," Hartley said Monday. "Under the circumstances, I believe the master did all he could do to avoid colliding."

For all of his intuitiveness, Turner misstepped soon after, Hartley said. Instead of calling the Coast Guard as soon as possible, Turner continued the trip, reaching the Ocean Jewel about 5:10 p.m.

The bridge tender called the Coast Guard just after the accident, but the captain didn't call until 40 minutes later, Hartley said. Turner declined to comment for this story.

While no one was killed, passengers aboard the catamaran say the collision began one of the longest trips of their lives.

* * *

Marilyn Taylor sat at a booth on the left side of Friendship IV 's deck with her sister and brother-in-law. It was her first voyage on a casino cruise and feeling hopeful, she had brought $20 to play with.

The 30-foot-wide boat had just cleared the southbound portion of the bridge when the right side of the boat careened into the fender, the calm of the day exploding with the sound of the crash.

"It just hit," she said. "It hit with such force, when you looked over to the side you were able to see smoke coming from the side of the boat. ... Everybody was panicking, saying, "Are we going to get out there and sink?"'

After a brief pause, the boat backed up and headed out toward the cruise, she said. Suddenly, crew members were telling passengers how to put on life jackets, Taylor said.

Though the life jackets were just under passengers' seats, Michael Sissenwine, of Worchester, Mass., doesn't remember hearing anything about how to get to them.

Passengers say they also weren't asked about their injuries.

"Instead of them asking if we were hurt, they ran to the life jackets," said Michael Lange, Taylor's brother-in-law. "They said nobody is hurt. How do they know? They didn't ask."

The passengers' accounts differ greatly from that of Ocean Jewel officials.

Ocean Jewel CEO Michael Hlavsa, pronounced lav-sa, said crew members were in the middle of giving the safety speech when the accident occurred.

He said one marine safety officer asked each passenger if they were hurt. Hlavsa said as of Monday, the company had received two complaints about Saturday's incident and no reports of injuries.

"All the passengers got on the boat and continued gaming," said Patty McKee, the company's marketing director. "No one reported to us they were injured."

Dawn Fulghum, 38, of Palm Harbor said they didn't have a choice. She said her husband, Joe, has a herniated disc in his back and wrenched it during the accident. She was worried about him, but when the boat kept going, they adjusted.

After the accident, the Coast Guard canceled all but the last shuttle from the casino cruise. That meant everyone scheduled to return on the earlier shuttles had to vie for spots with those on the latest shuttle.

Then, they were told they wouldn't be going back to John's Pass, but to the St. Petersburg dock. Crew members said buses would be waiting.

Passengers describe what happened both on the boat and back onshore as a mob scene.

Instead of those from the 4 p.m. shuttle getting precedence, as they were promised, the casino staff let VIP customers board first, Fulghum said.

Back in St. Petersburg, there weren't enough vans to take the hundreds of people back to their cars quickly, so people stood in long lines for cabs. McKee, Ocean Jewel's marketing director, said the company offered to reimburse passengers for their transportation costs.

The office hadn't received any as of Monday afternoon, she said.

* * *

Hartley, of the Coast Guard, said they are still investigating the accident. The driver of the smaller boat is still at large. Hartley said he didn't know yet whether that boat operator would be liable for damages, if found.

He said there have been six other commercial allisions, or accidents which involve a moving vessel striking a fixed object, in that channel during the past year.

Officials from the Florida Department of Transportation, which owns the bridge, say it should cost about $50,000 to fix the six cracked pilings.

Hlavsa said the boat sustained damage to a 3-feet-by-8-inch portion of the front right pontoon, nearly 5 feet above the water line, Hlavsa said. It will undergo less than $10,000 in repairs for the next few days, before starting operations again, he said.

Though the Coast Guard took it out of operation and won't allow the boat to run until the repairs are complete, Hlavsa said the damage was not that severe.

Hlavsa described Saturday's incident as "unfortunate," but said it's not atypical for a startup operation.

His passengers, many of whom didn't get home until after midnight, weren't so lenient.

"We will never, ever, ever go on that gambling boat again," said Fulghum. "We would sooner drive to Cocoa."

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