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September 23, 2014

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After 12 hours, passengers off grounded casino boat

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U.S. Coast Guard / AP

In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, the casino boat Escapade with 123 people aboard is grounded off the coast of Tybee Island, Ga., Wednesday, July 16, 2014.

Updated Wednesday, July 16, 2014 | 2:22 p.m.

SAVANNAH, Ga. — After more than 12 hours, passengers stranded on a casino boat that ran aground off Georgia's coast were ferried to shore Wednesday aboard two Coast Guard cutters.

About 94 of The Escapade's 96 passengers and 27 crew members arrived at the dock shortly after 4 p.m., nearly 24 hours after the boat left for its maiden voyage Tuesday night. A second cutter carrying 20 more people was still en route and was expected to arrive shortly afterward. Four people were ferried ashore by helicopter.

Some of the passengers rubbed their eyes as they walked slowly off the boat, and a woman who didn't stop long enough to give her name said she was tired. A woman wearing a crew shirt, who also did not give her name, remarked, "I just want to go home."

Attempts to tow the boat failed when the tow lines broke, so those aboard were transferred first to small boats that hold about eight people, then to the two larger vessels, Petty Officer 1st Class Lauren Jorgensen said.

Waiting at the casino boat's dock in Savannah, Tara Sinclair got a call from her 66-year-old mother shortly after 2 p.m. Wednesday. Veronica Heyward told her daughter she was safely aboard the cutter after being stranded on the casino boat for more than 12 hours.

"She said they had to jump from the big boat to the little boat and then climb a rope ladder" onto the cutter, Sinclair said. "She called it a Fear Factor moment."

Overnight, the passengers — wearing life vests — were growing annoyed, though no injuries were reported, according to the Coast Guard and family members awaiting the passengers' return.

Kia Murray's fiance called her from the ship about 1 p.m. — 13 hours after the ship ran aground.

"He just said everybody had been getting a little irritated from being out there overnight," said Murray, of Savannah. "But they're keeping them calm. ... He said they're giving them food and water."

The 174-foot-long Escapade was about 1.8 miles off the north end of Tybee Island, a popular beach destination east of Savannah, in the Calibogue Sound near Hilton Head, South Carolina, the Coast Guard said.

The Coast Guard received reports that the vessel had run aground around midnight Tuesday, officials said. The initial report from the Escapade's crew was about a malfunction of the chart plotter, part of the navigation system, Jorgenson told The Associated Press. But she said the Coast Guard hadn't been able to confirm any malfunction yet.

The Escapade is a casino ship operated by Florida-based Tradewinds Casino Cruise. The company's Facebook page said that Tuesday night was to be the maiden voyage for its Savannah cruise service and passengers were invited to board for free.

Tradewinds Casino Cruise did not immediately respond to phone messages left at the company's Savannah office and its headquarters in Madeira Beach, Florida.

About 50 cars were in Tradewinds' parking lot Wednesday afternoon. A security gate at the dock was closed, and a guard said he was the only employee there.

Tommy Eaton of nearby Pooler, Georgia, came to Tradewinds' Savannah dock at noon Wednesday. She brought a pain pill for her husband, Mark Eaton, to take for his bad back when he is able to get off the boat.

She said her husband called about 12:30 a.m. "He said, 'Something is just not right with this boat. It has lots of black smoke coming out the back, and it's leaning to one side,'" Eaton said.

After a sleepless night, Eaton said, her husband called again at 7 a.m.

"He just said they were sitting there waiting for the Coast Guard," Eaton said. "He said everybody looked fine. They were just ready to get off the boat." Then, she said, his phone went dead.

The casino boat's first Savannah cruise was scheduled to run from 7 p.m. Tuesday until 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, according to the company's website. It describes the vessel as a three-story ship capable of carrying 500 passengers. It's outfitted with slot machines, poker and blackjack tables and a roulette wheel.

"My understanding is the ship has generators to provide power," Jorgensen said, though she didn't know many specifics about conditions on board.

"The area is too shallow for our boats to come alongside so we do not actually have personnel on board," she said. "They can see the vessel; they just can't get on scene."

The casino boat was not impeding ships sailing to and from the Port of Savannah, said Robert Morris, a spokesman for the Georgia Ports Authority.

Associated Press Writer Jeff Martin in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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