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January 1998 Vol. 24, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Blown Up in St. Lucia

Four divers die: bad blood or bad boat?

from the January, 1998 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Eight days after taking their wedding vows, Tim and Victoria Simpson, from Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, were sitting side by side on the bow of a St. Lucia dive boat, donning their gear. Just as the crew of the Sandals Halcyon resort boat began to lift anchor, the boat exploded, hurling its passengers 30 feet into the air, peppering them with fiberglass shards, and then bursting into a ball of flame.

Four people died in the October 19 explosion. An American, Paul George, from Long Island, New York, died after being transported to a Miami hospital. A Swiss woman and two St. Lucian diving instructors also were killed by the blast. The seven survivors, including the newlyweds, had fractures, back injuries, burns, and embedded fiberglass slivers. Most were transported to Martinique for treatment.

Though rumors abound that the Sandals explosion stemmed from tourist business turf wars on this Caribbean island, two separate investigations have concluded that the accident was due to flawed boat design or poor boat maintenance. The St. Lucia police superintendent announced, “Our forensic people have gone over every inch of the debris, and there is absolutely no trace of any explosive substance on the Sandals boat.” Witnesses to the explosion reported seeing a line of fire extending out from the site of the explosion, suggesting a fuel leak.

Still, skeptics abound. Though it was the first incident to claim lives or involve dive operators, the blast was the fourth on St. Lucian tourist boats in the last 14 months, and there have been many incidents of severed fuel lines and engine tampering. So far, these incidents have been confined to the fishing and sailing charter section of Rodney Bay Marina; most involved the boats of one particular charter operator, Howard Otway, a Grenadan, who, by local accounts, is quite successful, perhaps even more so than many of his St. Lucian competitors.

St. Lucia’s prime minister
warned journalists
against “erroneous
conclusions which may
well have a deleterious
effect on our country.”

Police and government effort seems designed to sever any perceived connection between the Sandals explosion and the other bombings. St. Lucia’s prime minister warned journalists against “erroneous conclusions which may well have a deleterious effect on our country.” Nonetheless, the yachting newsletter All at Sea announced that these bombings, along with many other acts of sabotage toward business people involved in day-charter operations, raise the question as to whether they are all linked. A local journalist, Guy Ellis, suggested that the Sandals explosion might well have been linked to the previous three, prompting government sources to accuse him of “economic sabotage.”

Most fingers are pointing at Sandals and the U.S. manufacturer of Sea Scip boats. The St. Lucia Police Commissioner called the explosion “an incident which could have been avoided with adequate maintenance,” and said their investigation suggests that the explosion was caused by underdeck gasoline leakage that had gone undetected before being ignited by electrical short-circuiting.

A Sandals spokesperson countered by labeling the statement “an overreaction” and insisted that the boat-maintenance program at their twelve Caribbean resorts “is widely known to be among the most comprehensive and thorough anywhere in the Caribbean.” Citing its own internal investigation pointing to a design flaw by the manufacturer, Sandals has concluded that a ruptured fuel line under the sealed deck on that hot, still day had filled the hull with fumes. When the captain tried to start the bilge pump, the fumes ignited, pushing up the deck of the boat and catapulting the passengers into the air.

Neither Tim nor Victoria Simpson thought it was sabotage, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer. Tim said he became concerned when he noticed smoke seeping out of a porthole near the boat’s engine. That was the last thing he remembers; he thinks he hit his head against a tank and blacked out during the explosion.

Victoria Simpson saw “fire coming out of the engine. In that split second, I remember being thrust into the air and there was this intense sound. I was up in the air looking down at the water, thinking, ‘Make sure you go down feet first.’ I felt for my legs and my arms and made sure I could move them and wasn’t paralyzed.”

Once on shore, they waited an hour while paramedics aided other victims. She was placed in the back of a pickup truck and taken to a local hospital, where St. Lucian authorities confiscated her bathing suit to check for traces of explosives. The couple flew back to Philadelphia in an air ambulance for treatment.

Undercurrent contacted the boat manufacturer in Arkansas (a Sandals spokesperson told us it was a Sea Scip) and spoke with Fred Herman, who said he was unaware that any of his boats were in St. Lucia and that no Sea Scip boats had exploded. The following day, the number was no longer in service (the telephone company confirmed that it had been disconnected at the request of Sea Scip). It would seem prudent for anyone running a Sea Scip to take it out of service until it is known whether there is a problem.

It would seem equally prudent for divers to resist climbing aboard a Sea Scip craft — at least until the matter is cleared up.

(From personal interviews and reports in the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News, the Des Moines Register, the Toronto Star, and the Atlanta Constitution.)

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