Tom Stark, Father of Aaron Stark.


On October 8, 2001, Aaron Stark and 19 other passengers and crew drowned when Hurricane Iris slammed into Belize and capsized the Peter Hughes Diving Inc Wave Dancer.

Peter Hughes claims the tragedy, the worst in the history of recreational diving, was caused by a huge, freak wave or a freak tornado.

Tom Stark, Aaron's father, and many of the families of the victims believe the accident was caused by corporate greed, human error, negligence and simple stupidity, and have filed wrongful death lawsuits against Peter Hughes and Peter Hughes Diving Inc.

To better understand why the families believe the sudden loss of their loved ones resulted from negligence rather than a freak wave (or freak tornado), we invited Tom Stark, Aaron's father, to discuss the events that preceded the capsizing of the Wave Dancer and the response by Peter Hughes and company in the wake of the tragic deaths.

Mr. Stark was interviewed by CDNN Managing Editor, Freeman Washington.


FREEMAN: This must be a difficult and extremely painful matter for you to discuss. Why did you consent to CDNN's request for an interview?

TOM: On the evening of September 10th I put my son Aaron Stark on a plane in San Francisco for the first leg of his journey to a new job aboard the Wave Dancer operating out of Belize. A week later, due to the events on September 11th, Aaron arrived in Belize and began working at his new job as guest host and scuba instructor aboard the Wave Dancer.

Around 11am on Monday morning the 8th of October I received a call from Peter Hughes Diving Inc assuring me that Aaron was safe "considering everything that was going on".  But at 6 am the next morning I received a second phone call from Peter Hughes Diving Inc telling me that the Wave Dancer had capsized as a result of a huge, freak wave and Aaron was among the missing and presumed dead.

Four hours later we were informed that Aaron had been found and he was confirmed dead.  Over the next week Peter Hughes Diving Inc. told us repeatedly that the tragedy was a freak accident of nature.  Peter Hughes and Peter Hughes Diving Inc. did everything they could to dupe me and other family members of victims into buying into the "freak act of mother nature".

This was a needless, avoidable tragedy. Nothing will ever bring Aaron and the nineteen other innocent victims back to us, but I want the world to know that Peter Hughes Diving was careless, incompetent and its actions caused the death of twenty innocent people. I want the world to know that Peter Hughes Diving, Inc. is a very dangerous operation, run by very callous, dangerous people.

FREEMAN: You claim that Peter Hughes Diving Inc. attempted to "dupe" the families of the victims by blaming the sinking of the Wave Dancer on some "freak act of mother nature". What evidence do you have to back up your assertion that the tragedy was in fact avoidable?

TOM: There is so much evidence it begins to defy the bounds of common sense. Captain Philip Martin, under the direct orders of Peter Hughes, left Belize City Saturday evening with passengers and crew knowing that Iris had been upgraded to a hurricane and was threatening the Belize coast and dive areas in which the Wave Dancer was intending to operate.  Does anyone believe Captain Philip Martin left Belize City without checking the weather forecast and communicating with Peter Hughes?

Captain Philip Martin, again with the full knowledge of Peter Hughes, caused the Wave Dancer to remain anchored at "Lighthouse Reef" all day Sunday, knowing that Hurricane Iris was moving closer with each hour that passed.

  • We know that another live-aboard, the Belize Aggressor, departed Sunday evening for Belize City after a night dive.
  • We know that a number of passengers on the Wave Dancer and the Belize Aggressor did not go on the night dive because they were becoming increasingly nervous about the hurricane. I was told this by a passenger aboard the Belize Aggressor who also stated that the passengers and crew of both the Wave Dancer and the Belize Aggressor were not being informed on the size, force, or proximity of Hurricane Iris.
  • We know that the Wave Dancer did not leave the dive site the evening of Sunday the 7th of October with the Belize Aggressor. The same passenger told me that those aboard the Belize Aggressor were surprised and concerned as to the whereabouts of the Wave Dancer.
  • We know that the Wave Dancer was still anchored at "Lighthouse Reef" Monday morning and was communicating only with the home office and Peter Hughes in Miami.
  • We know that the Wave Dancer did not weigh anchor until the arrival of a helicopter sent by the police and military authorities of Belize dragging a banner stating words to the effect "hurricane coming-return to port at once".
  • We know that this helicopter was sent because Captain Philip Martin at the direct orders of Peter Hughes had disconnected, terminated or allowed to become inoperable the normal communication equipment.
  • We can imagine the concern of the crew and passengers at seeing this desperate measure.
  • We know that Captain Philip Martin was communicating with Miami while all this was playing out because I was personally called by Patricia Rose Monday mid-morning and told by her that she had just spoken with the Captain Philip Martin. Patricia Rose told me that she was calling just to let me know that Aaron was safe. Why did Patricia Rose call me? I can only speculate that upon seeing the helicopter my son Aaron and other crewmembers began to ask Captain Philip Martin what the hell was going on.
  • We know that the Government of Belize at this time issued a mandatory evacuation order requiring everyone to move to higher ground and seek safety in sturdy, reinforced concrete buildings and designated emergency evacuation shelters.
  • We know that Captain Philip Martin and Peter Hughes knew before the Wave Dancer left "Lighthouse Reef" that Hurricane Iris was tracking directly for Big Creek.
  • We know that Peter Hughes and Captain Philip Martin simply ignored this government order and drove the Wave Dancer up inland waters, past Belize City where they had been ordered to secure all passengers and crew, and towards Big Creek where Hurricane Iris was rapidly approaching head on.
  • We know that upon reaching Big Creek late Monday afternoon, just a few scant hours in front of Hurricane Iris, the Wave Dancer was tied to the dock under the supervision of Captain Philip Martin.
  • We know that the bow of the Wave Dancer protruded far out into the channel past the end of the dock.
  • We know from talking with passengers of the Aggressor that it was obvious to everyone that the Wave Dancer was not moored properly.
  • We know that after three repeated attempts by a local Belize Government official to convince the captains of the Aggressor and the Wave Dancer to move crew and passengers to emergency shelter on land they both refused. Captain Philip Martin also threatened those members of his crew that wanted to get off the boat with dismissal.
So let me summarize what evidence we have, prior to the hurricane hitting Big Creek, that the tragedy could have been avoided if the following actions by Captain Philip Martin and Peter Hughes had not occurred.

1. Captain Philip Martin and Peter Hughes ignore the most basic maritime safety regulations and leave port into an approaching hurricane.

2. Captain Philip Martin and Peter Hughes lie to and deceive the passengers and crew about the imminent approaching risk. They conspire to maintain this deceit by disabling most normal communication devices that could inform the crew and passengers of the true danger that approaches.

3. Captain Philip Martin and Peter Hughes ignore the Government of Belize order to Dock at Belize City and move crew and passengers to safe high rise shelters.

4. Captain Philip Martin and Peter Hughes lie to passengers and crew telling them that there is no place to evacuate to in Belize City.

5. Captain Philip Martin and Peter Hughes moor the Wave Dancer to a space on the dock in big creek that is much too small to accommodate the Wave Dancer safely.

   6. Captain Philip Martin and Peter Hughes continue to lie to and deceive the passengers and crew about the true dangers of the approaching Class 4 Hurricane. They threaten the crew that wants off the boat with dismissal.

Let me now summarize what evidence we have, during the time the hurricane hit Big Creek that the number of people killed by the above criminal negligence could have been reduced.

   1. Not one person that drowned had on a life jacket.

   2. Not one person had been informed of any hurricane preparedness plan.

FREEMAN: The events you describe involve a whole series of decisions by Captain Martin and/or Peter Hughes: To leave port or not, when to leave the dive site, where to go, what to do with the passengers and crew, and so forth.  Do you see any pattern to these decisions, in terms of what might have motivated them?  I mean, what do you see as the main priority underlying the decisions that Captain Martin and/or Peter Hughes made?

TOM: Peter Hughes, Peter Hughes Diving Inc., and Captain Philip Martin were motivated first and foremost by their greed and the bottom line. The decision to leave port with a hurricane coming, in a ship that cruised eight knots and whose top speed might be 12 knots, is the most obvious example of this.

From the time the passengers boarded the Wave Dancer Saturday afternoon, until most of the twenty bodies of passengers and crew were stacked at the end of a pier, not one thought was given to the their safety. Peter Hughes and Captain Philip Martin thought only about how to keep the money they had received…. How to keep from issuing any refunds.

Peter Hughes and Captain Philip Martin knew that many recommended safety features had been disregarded and ignored by Peter Hughes and Peter Hughes Diving, Inc. in its operation of the Wave Dancer for numerous years prior.  Periodic dry dock safety hauling and survey inspections had been ignored or disregarded. Structural changes had been made to the Wave Dancer's safety hatches and doors that rendered them useless.  All this for the sake of saving money for Peter Hughes. These "cost cutting" measures which disregarded safety rules were taken against the advice of prior Captains of the Wave Dancer and were done at the direct order of Peter Hughes.

The main priority underlying the decisions that Captain Martin and Peter Hughes made was total greed. The result of absolute, focused greed, combined with the total, moronic stupidity was the death of twenty innocent people.

I cannot come to grip with the fact that Peter Hughes, Peter Hughes Diving, Inc. and Captain Philip Martin, in whose hands were trusted the safety and wellbeing of the passengers and crew, made "calculated" decisions and took risks of such a magnitude as outlined above. "Calculated" decisions and risks for greed money that amounted to perhaps $1800 per dead body on the end of that pier. Greed and moronic stupidity.

FREEMAN: Recently, Peter Hughes announced he will resume operations in Belize this summer and that reservations are already being accepted.  In the press release, Hughes stated that he was "pleased to announce" the plan and that "There was never any doubt we would return to Belize, we are extremely excited to be going back. We love the destination and it has always been one of our most popular."  How do you feel when you read that announcement?

TOM: I feel like Peter Hughes is betraying me all over again. I feel more helpless than at any time since hearing of the disaster. If a huge rogue wave had come out of nowhere and capsized the Wave Dancer and twenty people had died, Mother Nature would be accountable. I would say "A huge rogue wave came out of nowhere and killed my son and nineteen other people". There would be accountability and closure.

I have been given nothing but lies, fabrications, and deceptions from Peter Hughes and everyone associated with him. When Peter Hughes states that he, Peter Hughes Diving, Inc, and the crew did everything possible to ensure the safety of the passengers and the crew, I become physically sick. What chance were the crew members given to protect themselves or the passengers while Peter Hughes was directing this particular operation from Miami on the radio?

Now Peter Hughes says there was never any doubt they would return to Belize. He is excited! It is as if he gave the matter of the twenty lost lives stacked at the end of the pier in Big Creek to his lawyers and is saying "clean up this little mess I made, while I get back to the office and direct some more novice captains in how to handle a hurricane".

I have been writing to the Government of Belize to find out the Status of the investigation into the Wave Dancer tragedy. The following excerpt is from the Ambergris Today newspaper in Belize dated November 1, 2001.

"Authorities have launched three separate investigations into the incident as well. The International Merchant Marine Registry of Belize (IMMARBE), which registered the Belize-flagged vessel is apparently leading the investigation. Over the next four months, a four-member team from IMMARBE will be conducting an intensive investigation. If the owners of the Wave Dancer are found to have been negligent in meeting safety/certification requirements, their Belize licenses could be withdrawn. The report is due by the end of January 2002."

No one from the Government of Belize and no one from IMMARBE will comment at all on the status of the investigation. It now appears to be "not ongoing". I spoke with Nelson, who works with the Huggett & Watford Lawfirm in Miami, Florida. Huggett & Watford represent a number of the victims' family members in the ongoing lawsuits brought against Peter Hughes and his organizations, and Captain Philip Martin. Nelson told me this morning not to hold my breath with regard to the IMMARBE investigation, as it might never be concluded!

It appears that Peter Hughes has been given the green light by the Government of Belize to send another ship and resume operations in Belize. If this is indeed the case then the Government of Belize obviously does not care what kind of people it allows to obtain and hold a Belize License. They obviously do not care that Peter Hughes' greed and gross negligence killed two of their own citizens and eighteen guests of their country.

I DO CARE. I want to insure that what I consider to be criminal gross negligence that killed our loved ones is not repeated. I want to prevent the lies, fabrications, and deceptions we have seen here from being part of another story like this one, in the future.


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