Tambrey Laine/Pasco County via AP
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — A casino company said Monday it never had a problem with the shuttle boat that burst into flames off Florida’s Gulf Coast, leading to the death of a female passenger.Tropical Breeze Casino spokeswoman Beth Fifer said the company does not know what caused Sunday’s huge blaze, which gutted the 12-year-old shuttle boat and forced about 50 passengers to jump into chilly waters off Port Richey.
“We are deeply saddened for the loss of our passenger, the 14 injured and anyone else who was affected by this tragedy,” Fifer said. Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point spokesman Kurt Conover said Monday that the passenger arrived at the hospital’s emergency room at 10 p.m. Sunday and died shortly afterward. He said she had apparently gone home after the fire but became ill.
Pasco County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Kevin Doll said the victim was 42. Her name has not been released and a cause of death has not been determined. Conover said eight other passengers were treated at the hospital and released. Authorities originally said no injuries were life-threatening.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Michael De Nyse said investigators will determine the cause of the fire and examine the history of the boat and Tropical Breeze Casino. Helicopter video taken by WTSP-TV early Monday shows the boat was burned down to its hull, with only an American flag on its bow uncharred.
The shuttle boat regularly carried people back and forth from the Tropical Breeze’s offshore casino, about a 45-minute ride into international waters. There, passengers would play games such as black jack, which is illegal at non-Indian casinos in Florida, and roulette, which is illegal statewide.
The shuttle boat caught fire about 4 p.m. Sunday, quickly engulfing the boat close to shore near residential neighborhoods. Officials said the boat was headed out to the casino ship at the time. Port Richey Police Chief Gerard DeCanio said the shuttle boat experienced engine problems after leaving the dock at Port Richey, a suburban community about 35 miles (55 kilometers) northwest of Tampa. But as the vessel turned back, flames kicked up and people began jumping overboard into shallow water, according to witness accounts.
Larry Santangelo, 57, said he had just driven into his neighborhood when he saw smoke and fire and thought a house — possibly his own — was ablaze. But then he realized it was the boat just about 100 yards (90 meters) offshore.
He told the Tampa Bay Times that he then saw people wandering about confused, wet and cold, after they reached land. One woman collapsed upon reaching shore and vomited, he said. Santangelo said he took about 30 of the passengers into his garage to warm up and recover.
“It was so windy and they were soaking wet,” said Santangelo. He worried that some might suffer from hypothermia.
It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the fire, which sent a huge plume of dark black smoke wafting over sunny skies on an unusually chilly winter day in the Tampa Bay region. “It looked pretty dramatic because the shuttle boat burned really fast,” DeCanio told The Associated Press on Sunday.
Another witness told the Tampa Bay Times the shuttle boat passes regularly by his family’s home, carrying patrons to and from a casino ship offshore. But he knew something was wrong when he saw smoke and heard shouts and screams.
“They didn’t have much time to decide whether or not to jump,” said Bakr Jandali, 19, who was with his home nearby. “The fire was moving fast. It was a hard jump.” Jandali said passengers had to jump about 12 feet (3 meters) from the boat and wade through waist-deep water to shore. There, residents gave them aid. “All of us, my family and the neighbors, brought them towels and water,” Jandali said. “They were so cold.”
News footage at the site showed bedraggled survivors cloaked in blankets trying to warm themselves afterward. The boat was identified in newspaper reports as the Island Lady, a 72-foot wooden-hulled vessel which Fifer said had been inspected by the Coast Guard. “If we had any type of idea that there was a problem, we wouldn’t have left the dock,” the cruise spokeswoman told the Tampa Bay Times. “There was no inkling that there were any problems with that vessel whatsoever.”