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After 12 hours, an exit from stalled casino boat

TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. (AP) — 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 casino voyage Tuesday night. A second cutter carrying 20 more people was still en route arrived shortly afterward. Four people were ferried ashore by helicopter. Some of the passengers rubbed their eyes as they walked slowly off the boat. Passenger Michael Alcott, 39, from Savannah, said most of the passengers stayed calm and that the crew treated them well. "The AC was blowing cold. They had food," he said. Crew members fed the passengers hot dogs late at night and then served eggs and bacon in the morning, he said. He said passengers slept on the floor using life jackets for pillows. But passenger Dina Cook of Savannah said she was upset passengers were kept in the dark as long as they were. "It was nerve-wracking, the fact that we were not being told anything," she said. Initial 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. Tara Sinclair, waiting at the Savannah dock for her mother, 66-year-old passenger Veronica Heyward, said her mom told her passengers had to "jump from the big boat to the little boat and then climb a rope ladder" onto the cutter. "She called it a Fear Factor moment," Sinclair said. Jorgensen said the area where the boat was stranded was too shallow for the Coast Guard boats to pull alongside it. 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. The 174-foot-long Escapade was still stranded 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. 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. Alcott said he felt the ship jolt when it ran aground about 9:30 Tuesday night. He said passengers continued to gamble for about three hours until they were told that they were stuck. He and Cook both said the ship was listing at a sharp angle that forced people to walk leaning to one side, which Cook said left her with swollen ankles. As she headed toward the buses that were shuttling passengers to their cars, Cook said she was ready for the experience to be over. "I'm ready to go home and take a long, hot bath," she said. ___ Associated Press Writer Jeff Martin in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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