Miami Fire Chief defends city’s response to deadly July 4 Biscayne Bay boat tragedy

Amid criticism from family members and the firefighters’ union, Miami Fire Chief Maurice Kemp Thursday defended his department’s response to the deadly July 4 boating accident on Biscayne Bay

Four people were killed and several injured following the three-boat crash off Dinner Key in Coconut Grove. Two remain hospitalized.

Authorities say a 32-foot Contender piloted by 23-year-old Andrew Garcia struck a 36-foot Carrera broadside, then hit a Boston Whaler. Garcia and two of his passengers, Kelsie Karpiak, 24, and Victoria Dempsey, 20, were killed, along with Carrera passenger Jason Soleimani, 23.

The bodies of Garcia and Dempsey were recovered the following morning after Dempsey’s father, Mike, and Garcia’s father, Jack Garcia, searched the bay in a private boat.

Dempsey, a retired Miami-Dade Water and Sewer employee, and Garcia, a retired Miami-Dade fire rescue boat captain, joined union members in blaming budget cuts for not having a county fireboat help with the late-night search, which they said was called off early.

“I fault Miami-Dade’s mayor for not having the fireboat. I think it would have found the bodies earlier,” Dempsey said Thursday. “I also fault city boats that searched and gave up early.”

But Kemp said the Miami Fire Department’s role was to treat and transport injured victims, and the U. S. Coast Guard was in charge of search and rescue.

He said other agencies continued to search the bay after his department was called off around 2 a.m. Saturday.

“At that time, it was our understanding that there were no people unaccounted for and our primary mission was to transport,” Kemp said. “That was the understanding from all the agencies involved at the time.”

Around 6:30 a.m., the department learned that two people still were missing and two fireboat crews were sent back to the bay, providing fellow rescuers with GPS coordinates of the last locations where they picked up victims.

Kemp was asked why his fireboats did not deploy high-tech infrared radar equipment that can detect the heat signatures of people floating in water at night.

He reiterated, the fire department’s job was to treat and transport the injured and said there were more than 70 police and rescue units from multiple agencies on the scene.

“If you’re asking me if the county fireboat, with four people, would have made a difference, I don’t know,” he said.

“That’s not my issue. My issue is the response was adequate and the uniforms and civilians did an incredible job of responding to a chaotic scene, and they went above and beyond in providing services.”

Since the results of the autopsy on three of the victims have not been publicized, it is not known what caused their death.

Kemp said all agencies involved will set up a meeting to discuss how they can improve coordination in the future.

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