Fire Forces Return Of SunCruz Vessel In Florida

A fire in the engine room of a SunCruz casino ship brought the 98-ton vessel to a halt in choppy seas Sunday and forced 158 passengers and crew to cut short a day cruise while the crew and firefighters extinguished the flames. There were no serious injuries.

The SunCruz V was about 40 minutes into its trip and headed for international waters, where it's legal to gamble, when smoke alarms aboard the 160-foot vessel sounded. The captain immediately shut down the engine and ventilation system and called the U.S. Coast Guard. Other crew began herding the 114 passengers to the top deck and handing out life jackets.

The ship was two to three miles offshore when the Coast Guard arrived 14 minutes later and set up a safety perimeter around it. Minutes later, Broward Sheriff's Office firefighters arrived on a vessel of their own, boarded and began fighting the fire.

SunCruz V Capt. James Dean watched the smoldering fire through a video monitor and said the vessel was never in peril. His crew was already fighting the fire when the Coast Guard and Sheriff's Office Fire-Rescue arrived.

"We can do everything, we can put it out," Dean said. "We have all the firefighting equipment on board."

Dean said the fire was contained to the engine room, which sits amidships below the first deck on the port side. The cause of the fire and the extent of damage were under investigation. A SunCruz official at the scene refused to comment.

The SunCruz V, which was built in 1996 and holds 17 table games, sails twice daily from Martha's Restaurant in Hollywood. Passengers pay $10.99 for the trip and another $5.99 for the buffet. It was not clear when cruises would resume.

Diana Sodano of Lake Worth said she panicked when she saw the thick black smoke billowing throughout the ship.

"You tried to keep your head together if [you] have to do something," Sodano said. "The smoke was so thick people were falling over one another. You couldn't get away from it."

John and Sally Duncan of Hialeah had fists full of gambling chips and were gearing up for blackjack when they smelled smoke and were told to go to the top deck.

"They gave us life vests. They did everything great," Sally Duncan said. "They took care of everything to make you not be afraid."

Bill Gomes of Oakland Park said he had wanted to take his wife, Wanda, on a cruise to the Bahamas. But since she's nervous about boats, Sunday was supposed to be their trial run.

"Then this happened," Bill Gomes said dryly. "Guess if we're going to the Bahamas, we're flying."

Gomes said the crew had just announced that gambling would begin in 10 minutes. All was well, he said.

"Then -- boom! -- there was a bang and black smoke started coming out of the ship and we were dead in the water," he said.

Wanda Gomes said the choppy seas made the situation even scarier. "When you're dead in the water on that rough of a day, it's lunging and tables are turning over."

Carole Konarske took the trip with her husband, Bruno, as a way to relax the day after her daughter's wedding. The ordeal didn't faze Bruno Konarske, who served on a submarine in World War II and "is used to typhoons."

But Carole Konarske said the crew seemed ill-prepared for the emergency. The seas were rough, yet no one secured the tables to keep them from flipping.

"There was no organization," she said. She didn't complain about the smoke, however, despite having difficulty breathing from a tracheotomy.

"I'm burning [in my lungs] from it," she said while puffing on a cigarette. "But I'm used to it. People made a bigger deal about it than it was."

Drew Pearce, a craps dealer, said he and other workers made sure everyone stayed seated on the top deck.

"We kept everyone calm," he said. "The passengers were all right. There were a couple of nervous people."

A tugboat operated by Sea Tow of Fort Lauderdale towed the vessel to Port Everglades, where ambulances, fire trucks and media waited. As the ship pulled up to the dock, firefighters cut through the deck railing and erected a gangplank so passengers could disembark.

Two passengers complained of not feeling well and were taken to a hospital for evaluation. They were not thought to be in serious condition, Erdman said.

The company then put the passengers aboard two buses to return them to the parking lot at Martha's Restaurant. For some, the bad luck continued when one of the buses broke down along Federal Highway and Northeast First Street in Dania Beach. The 39 passengers were stranded for an hour before another SunCruz bus picked them up.

"Can you believe this? It's a comedy of errors," said Wanda Gomez, who was unlucky enough to experience both breakdowns. "You could not predict it. You could not dream it."

Several other passengers went to a nearby bar to wait for the second bus.

Sunday's fire was yet another setback in the spotty, and at times strange, history of SunCruz Casinos. In April the firm was bought out of bankruptcy by Ocean Casino Cruises Inc. for $36 million.

Among the investors was Spiros Naos, the nephew of the company's founder, the dynamic Greek entrepreneur Gus Boulis.

Boulis died in a still-unsolved ambush slaying in Fort Lauderdale in 2001, six months after he sold the company.

SunCruz employs about 1,000 people to run six gambling ships in Florida and South Carolina.

Staff Writer Lauren Heist and Staff Photographer Anastasia Walsh Infanzon contributed to this report.