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Lines break in attempts to tow stalled casino boat; passengers to be moved to smaller vessels

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SAVANNAH, Ga. - A casino boat carrying about 100 passengers on its maiden trip ran aground overnight off Georgia's coast and remained stranded Wednesday after tow lines broke in the Coast Guard's initial attempts to free it.

The Escapade was supposed to return about 12:30 a.m., and those aboard — wearing life vests — were growing annoyed, though no injuries were reported, according to the Coast Guard and family members awaiting the passengers' return in Savannah.

Kia Murray's fiancee 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."

Crews now plan to put those aboard the Escapade — 96 passengers and 27 crew members — onto Coast Guard boats that can hold about eight people, then transfer them to a larger vessel, the cutter Maia Bray, Petty Officer 1st Class Lauren Jorgensen said.

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 Escape'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."

___

Associated Press writer Jeff Martin contributed to this report from Atlanta.

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