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Woman, 42, dies after casino shuttle boat burst into flame off Florida’s Gulf coast

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 January, 2018, 1:37pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2018, 3:32am

A 42-year-old woman has died after she and dozens of other passengers leapt into the sea off the coast of Florida to escape the inferno that was consuming their casino shuttle boat on Sunday night.

The woman, who has not been identified, died hours after escaping the 4pm fire, and less than an hour after she arrived at hospital saying that she felt ill, Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point spokesman Kurt Conover said.

The cause of the woman’s death is still being determined, police said, although officials originally had said no injuries were life threatening. Some 15 passengers had experienced chest pain, smoke inhalation and other injuries.

The shuttle boat routinely carries people back and forth from the Tropical Breeze Casino Cruise, which is offshore because it can’t legally operate close to land, according to authorities. The company said it might have a statement later Monday.

Fire belched from the shuttle boat Sunday afternoon as it was heading out on one of its regular runs to a casino ship when the crew decided to turn around, said Port Richey Police Chief Gerard DeCanio.

It looked pretty dramatic because the shuttle boat burned really fast
Port Richey Police Chief Gerard DeCanio.

He said the shuttle boat was close to shore near residential neighbourhoods when it experienced engine problems after leaving the dock at Port Richey, a suburban community about 55km (34 miles) northwest of Tampa.

But as the vessel turned back, flames kicked up and people began jumping overboard into shallow water, according to witness accounts.

Fifteen people complaining of chest pain, smoke inhalation and other minor injuries were taken to the hospital to be checked, authorities said, adding no injuries were life-threatening.

Larry Santangelo, 57, said he had just driven into his neighbourhood when he saw smoke and fire and thought a house – possibly his own – was ablaze. But then he realised it was the boat just about 100 metres (328 feet) 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.

The fire sent a huge plume of dark black smoke wafting over sunny skies on an unusually chilly winter day in the Tampa Bay region.

They didn’t have much time to decide whether or not to jump
Witness Bakr Jandali

“It looked pretty dramatic because the shuttle boat burned really fast,” DeCanio said by phone.

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 smoke cut across the sunny Florida skies and he 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 family at home nearby when they heard the commotion. “The fire was moving fast. It was a hard jump.”

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Jandali said passengers had to leap about 3 metres (9.8 feet) and wade through somewhat shallow water. He said passengers waded in waist-deep water before reaching land. Residents then offered them towels, socks and water to drink.

“All of us, my family and the neighbours, brought them towels and water,” Jandali said. “They were so cold.”

The shuttle boat regularly carries people back and forth from the Tropical Breeze Casino Cruise, which is offshore because it can’t legally operate close to land, according to authorities. They said the shuttle vessel was headed out to the casino ship at the time of the fire.

Tropical Breeze Casino Cruises didn’t immediately respond to calls seeking information.