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October 2002 Vol. 17, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Suit Against Peter Hughes Settled

Wave Dancer victims say justice wasn’t done

from the October, 2002 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

On October 8, 2001, Peter Hughes’ Wave Dancer tied up in Belize’s Big Creek to avoid a hurricane. The boat capsized and twenty souls were lost, the only deaths in Belize resulting from Hurricane Iris, though the adjoining town of Independence was heavily damaged and the nearby town of Placencia was “all but leveled.” Hughes and the victims have settled, and the following article (from the Richmond (Va.), Times-Dispatch) discusses the unhappy settlement. Hughes has been unwilling to speak publicly about the disaster, though he did talk with a Chnnel Five reporter in Belize when he returned with the Sun Dancer. We have followed with that interview.

* * * * * *

Nearly a year after the Wave Dancer dive-boat disaster in Belize, an insurance settlement has been reached that has left Peter Hughes Diving Inc. intact and most everyone else feeling like they have been victimized again.

“It is a horribly disappointing ending,” said Jeffrey A. Breit of Norfolk, one of several lawyers representing the 23 victims — three of whom survived.

Most of the victims of the Oct. 8 capsizing during Hurricane Iris were members of the Richmond Dive Club in Richmond, Virginia. Payments for each victim range from several thousand dollars to several hundred thousand dollars.

“Is there any justice in this world?” asked Heather Johnston, who lost both her parents, Byron and Shirley Johnston of Chesterfield, Va. She wanted Peter Hughes Diving held liable for the tragedy. But the settlement shields the firm from further lawsuits, lawyers for the victims said.

So ends a complex global search for Peter Hughes Inc.’s assets that saw the victims’ lawyers fighting together to keep the case from being mired in international law and possibly heard — years from now — in Belize courts. “Unless we wanted this to last decades, there was no way to hunt for Peter Hughes” in wrongful-death suits, said Kenneth W. Paciocco, a Richmond lawyer who represented the three Richmond-area survivors and the families of three who died. It took a monumental effort “just to get it to this point,” Paciocco said.

Breit said Peter Hughes Diving had set up each of its numerous diving vessels as separate corporations, some of them with headquarters outside the United States. That made them “difficult to pierce,” he said. “Our options were limited to next-to-nothing,” Breit said. And since the fees from all the lawyers involved would be deducted from the insurance settlement, “we decided to stop the bleeding.”

Retired Richmond Circuit Judge Robert L. Harris Sr., a widely respected mediator, weighed each claim, as agreed by all the lawyers representing the victims. Harris set payouts based on the wage-earning capacity of the victims, the age of their children and the closeness of relationships to surviving family members. “He was most concerned about taking care of infant children left behind,” Breitt said.

The payouts set by Harris totaled well over $17 million. But there is only about $4 million left from the Lloyd’s of London insurance policy on the Wave Dancer operation. [While the initial policy was $5 million, nearly $1 million was spent by Hughes to refloat and move the Wave Dancer and then the lawyers will take their fees.]

So payments will be made based on “pro-rata” percentages. For example, a family with young children who lost both of their parents will get roughly twenty percent of the payout, Breit explained. Richmond divers who survived the tragedy will get less than one percent. “I’m just glad it is over,” said Richmond Dive Club’s Dave DeBarger, believed to be the last one to escape the overturned craft. “They who lost the most, got the most.” He is pleased that the largest portion of the settlement goes to the children of the victims. “There’s not enough money in this world to recompense them for what they lost,” DeBarger said.

“I’m glad for every dime they get.” But DeBarger, who lost longtime friends in the disaster, also feels cheated by the settlement. “I never went into this to get money. I went into this to get to the truth. Unfortunately, the truth hasn’t come out.”

“evidence in the case we
were able to develop was
enough to support a gross
negligence claim ...
I think the liability on
Peter Hughes was
overwhelming.”

Breit said “evidence in the case we were able to develop was enough to support a gross negligence claim . . . I think the liability on Peter Hughes was overwhelming.”

Among those issues, according to Breit: The Wave Dancer was the last dive boat to head for shore as the hurricane approached; the boat’s captain, who was in contact with Peter Hughes via satellite phone, continued to head for Big Creek, even though hurricane trackers warned the storm had changed directions and was heading that way; the 120-foot-long boat was moored to a dock with a substantial portion of its prow exposed in the Big Creek channel; those aboard the craft were not told to go ashore; scuba gear was not made handy in case of disaster; and the boat’s lines were not properly tended. The investigation into the disaster by the International Merchant Marine Registry of Belize has not been completed.

Peter Hughes was not available for comment, but the firm’s Web site notes that the Wave Dancer has been replaced by Sun Dancer II, which is “the largest, most luxurious vessel and the flagship of the Dancer Fleet, which will bring a whole new dimension to live-aboard diving in Belize.”

“There was never any doubt we would return to Belize,” Hughes is quoted as saying on the site. “We are extremely excited to be going back, we love the destination, and it has always been one of our most popular.”

This deeply rankles Heather Johnston. “Why is Peter Hughes still licensed to operate a dive boat in Belize after killing twenty innocent victims there?” she asked. “Can the United States exert its power in Belize to counteract the financial power that Peter Hughes has there?”

Copyright Richmond Times-Dispatch — used with permission.

* * * * * *

In July, when the Sun Dancer arrived in Belize, Peter Hughes appeared and was interviewed by Channel 5 Belize News. Here is a synopsis of what he said.

“The Wave Dancer incident was obviously a tragic, tragic incident. And I have been accused perhaps of being rather callous because of my desire to come back to Belize and because of some statements I made about looking forward to coming back to Belize. But what people must realize, is that while this may sound callous coming from me, it’s not. I have a lot of responsibilities that go far beyond myself. There are seventy or eighty families around the world that make their living from our companies and our related companies. Here in Belize we have the distinct pleasure and privilege of doing business . . . for ten years. It was an incident-free ten years, it was a very good ten years. Belize was good to me, I think I was good to Belize. I think I gave back in kind what I received. After the tragic incident, there were a lot of heated emotions, which one can expect, there was a tremendous amount of grief. Over time grief turns to anger, anger turns to the need for revenge, etc. So I sympathize, I feel for those people. Every day of my life when I wake up I think of those people and I think of the people that were left behind.”

“So I feel remorseful, I feel tremendous sorrow and regret for what happened, but I also feel a certain sense of optimism in the future. I can’t change what happened, but I can ensure it will never happen again, and that I intend to do . . . we have obviously adapted our hurricane plan . . . our job is to make sure that the tourists that visit us here in Belize have a good time. There were certain collective decisions made on the night of the tragedy that will never again be collectively made. There will be mandatory evacuations of the crew at least twenty-four hours prior to any possibility of a hurricane striking us. We expected that hurricane as you know, to strike right here [Belize City] . . . When we attempted to bring our vessel here to disembark our passengers, we were not allowed to do so. We were advised that the hotel would not receive them and we were advised that the city was being evacuated because the hurricane was projected to hit Belize City and Dangriga, so we went south. Unfortunately, the hurricane followed us south . . . My captain made decisions that I support at this point, but in the future, even though that is where the boat will go, I assure you, there will be no passengers onboard and any crew members that are onboard will be absolutely one hundred percent voluntary. They will have the right to park the boat, secure it as you see it, but in Big Creek and leave.”

A Channel 5 reporter then asked Hughes, “As for the allegation made by one of your former employees, Miss Angela Luk, that the captain told the Belizean crew members that if they left they would be fired, how does your company respond to that?”

“You’re a professional journalist, you know that anything somebody said can be interpreted or misinterpreted deliberately or accidentally. I think in the heat of the moment, that what the captain said was misinterpreted. I was not there so I do not know what he said. Miss Luk was there, but she was under a tremendous amount of emotional distress at the time. What I have been told by several sources, that my captain actually said was — she was a temporary crew member, not a full-time crew member — and what I’m told he said was, “Angie if you leave, you understand you may not be able to step back onboard whenever you want to.” That’s what he said. And the other two, who were so unfortunately lost, have been on our vessels long enough. And one of them in particular, a very dear friend, Eloisa Johnson, who I knew better than Miss Brenda Wade, many, many times in the past when I would visit the boat, if she had a problem with anything the captain would do, would come right up to me and very vocally let me know what the problem was. So I assure you, in my mind and in my conscience, I believe that if they had really feared for their lives at the time, they would have walked off that boat, not been afraid that they had been fired . . .

Channel 5: Does your company at this point accept any negligence or blame in the deaths of those twenty people?”

“No. We do not feel we were negligent. We absolutely think that we acted in the best interest at the time with the information we had available to us. It was impossible, it was only a matter of a few hours prior to the hurricane striking us head-on that we knew that hurricane would not be north of Dangriga. Had that hurricane been north of Dangriga, you and I would not be having this interview now, we’d be talking of something much more pleasant.”

According to Hughes, Phillip Martin, the captain of the Wave Dancer at the time of the sinking, resigned from his post shortly after the tragedy.

* * * * *

The victims in this terrible tragedy were fellow divers. They dived a lot and it’s not unlikely that you, in your travels, may have been aboard a boat with one of the Richmond Club who never made it back. I don’t recall meeting any, but some were subscribers to Undercurrent with whom I have corresponded. Ray Mars, one who died, had submitted excellent reports to our Chapbook for many years.

The law suits and Hughes’ comments don’t put a face on the deaths, but keep them in the abstract. Ray’s wife, Teresa Mars, has written me to explain just how tragic Ray’s death was. Mr. Davison,

I would like to tell you a little bit about Ray’s and my history together. We met at Purdue University in the fall of 1966 and were married on August 24, 1968. We have one son, Ray Jr., now aged 33, who looks more and more like his dad as he gets older. There was only 20-years difference in their ages, and they were real pals. He stayed with me for several months after Ray was killed, because he thought his father would want him to take care of me.

Ray’s death has been very difficult on our whole extended family, on both sides, including Ray’s parents. The bodies of the victims were left to lie on the pier in Belize for several days, in the extreme heat and humidity. Even after they were sent to Belize City, there was not enough refrigeration for all of them, so the condition of the bodies was horrible. Our funeral director went to pick Ray’s body up in Richmond when they finally returned him. Our son and I wanted to see him, to say goodbye, but were convinced that he was unrecognizable and finally decided that his privacy had been invaded enough. He was a very fit, young-looking man and would not have wanted us to see him in that condition. The funeral director made a positive identification by a tattoo on Ray’s arm of a hammerhead shark. He was only able to see part of it, because my beautiful husband’s skin was coming apart. I’m sorry that I’m telling you this if it upsets you, but it’s what happened. Ray’s body was returned from Belize on his father’s 89th birthday, October 14. He was cremated the next day.

“We do not feel we were negligent.
We absolutely think that we acted
in the best interest at the times.”

As for commenting on what Peter Hughes said, one thing I find wrong is what he said about Eloisa Johnson. A report I have in my possession has her husband saying she called him from the Wave Dancer. He begged her to get off the boat, but she was afraid that she would be fired. Did you know that the Wave Dancer was the last boat to leave the open seas? The captain had turned off all the radios on board the boat, so no one from Belize could contact them about the danger. A helicopter flew out to them with a banner, instructing them to return at once. Apparently, the only communication was from the wheelhouse and only with the Peter Hughes Miami office.

Ray and I were in Turks and Caicos (on land) for our 30th wedding anniversary when Hurricane Bonnie was in that general direction. Ray went on a dive Friday morning, and many divers wanted to do an afternoon dive, but the captain refused to take the boat out because of reports of the storm approaching. From that afternoon, all the boats were either tied up several different directions, or some were pulled out of the water. The Turks and Caicos Aggressor did not leave Saturday as scheduled and was all boarded up. I don’t know where the passengers and crew were. I saw all this first-hand, and Hurricane Bonnie did not even hit Provo. It took until Wednesday for any boats to go back out. I saw on the TV Sunday, October 7, 2001, that Hurricane Iris was heading for the coast of Belize, so they had plenty of warning. If I, in Maryland, could see this, you know they had the information by at least then, and should never have left port Saturday. Also, Peter Hughes says their hurricane plan is very changed, so if they did the right thing, why would they have to change it?

— Teresa Mars

Yes, the lawsuit was settled, but the pain will never be. The case was not about money. It was about responsibility, accountability, justice. While Peter Hughes says “No. We do not feel we were negligent,” the attorney for the plaintiffs said, “evidence in the case we were able to develop was enough to support a gross negligence claim . . . I think the liability on Peter Hughes was overwhelming.”

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