Caribbean Ferry That Caught Fire Had History of Violations, Lawsuit Alleges
The operator of a ferry that burst into flames last month in the Caribbean faces a personal injury lawsuit brought on behalf of nearly 40 individuals, including several families and their children, who say they suffered a variety of injuries and believed they were going to die after the ferry caught fire.
The incident occurred on the Caribbean Fantasy ferry on August 17, as it was traveling to San Juan from Santa Domingo, when a fire began in the engine room and spread throughout the ship, causing 512 passengers and 26 crew members to abandon ship into the nearby waters. The ship eventually ran aground as emergency responders and U.S. Coast Guard rescued people out of the water and life rafts.
According to a complaint (PDF) filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, the voyage was the first after the vessel underwent extensive repair work due to various mechanical and electrical failures, alleging that American Cruise Ferries, Inc. failed to properly maintain a vessel that was seaworthy and safe from dangerous conditions.
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The lawsuit alleges that passengers inhaled toxic smoke from the fire, suffered injuries while being evacuated and were generally traumatized by the event, believing they were going to either drown or burn to death. The first notice provided to the passengers was an announcement that claimed the fire was out of control and indicated that everyone had to report to the upper deck.
“As instructed, passengers and appearing co-plaintiffs proceeded to the upper deck, only to find a scenario of total pandemonium, where people were screaming, pushing each other and jumping overboard in hysteria; and fire, smoke and boiling temperature were the main stage,” the lawsuit states. “As naturally foreseeable, passengers and appearing co-plaintiffs broke into panic and/or suffered extreme anxiety because they believed the ferry was going to explode before they could escape the vessel. In sum, they believed that they were going to die.”
The chaos lasted for nearly two hours, according to the lawsuit, and during that entire time the plaintiffs were exposed to toxic smoke.
The lawsuit notes that the only means to evacuate was an emergency slide, and only one passenger could use a slide at a time. In addition, the complaint indicates that the slide were not inflated properly, causing it to bend and forcing the U.S. Coast Guard rescue boat to constantly maneuver to stay into position.
American Cruse ferries put out a statement on Facebook the day of the fire.
“On the morning of today, Wednesday 17 August, in the boat Caribbean Fantasy, in its route of Santo Domingo to San Juan, a situation was detected in the engine room,” the statement read in part. “Immediately we activate the security protocol for the welfare of our passengers.”
The vessel was towed to San Juan Harbor on August 20.
However, it now appears that the ferry, run by America Cruise Ferries, has been subject to numerous violations and fines in recent years.
In May 2013, January 2015 and April 2015, the ferry received failing grades by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a result of inspections as part of the Vessel Sanitation Program. Those failures were linked to sanitation problems such as improperly cleaned stove tops and mold.
In addition, federal investigators discovered a van on board the ferry in March 2015 that had $46,000 in heroin. The company was not fined or charged in that incident.
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