Woman dies after fire engulfs casino shuttle boat off Florida's Gulf Coast; 14 others injured

  • A shuttle boat used to carry patrons to a Florida casino ship became engulfed in flames.
  • One woman died and 14 others were injured.
  • Tropical Breeze Casino Cruises didn't immediately respond to calls seeking information.
In this photo provided by Pasco County flames engulf a boat Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018, in the Tampa Bay area. The boat ferrying patrons to a casino ship off the Florida Gulf Coast caught fire near shore Sunday afternoon, and dozens of passengers and crew safely made it to land with some jumping overboard to escape, authorities said.
Pasco County Fire Rescue | AP
In this photo provided by Pasco County flames engulf a boat Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018, in the Tampa Bay area. The boat ferrying patrons to a casino ship off the Florida Gulf Coast caught fire near shore Sunday afternoon, and dozens of passengers and crew safely made it to land with some jumping overboard to escape, authorities said.

A female passenger has died hours after a casino boat caught fire off Florida's Gulf Coast, forcing her and about 50 other passengers and crew to jump into the chilly waters to escape.

Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point spokesman Kurt Conover said Monday that the woman died late Sunday, shortly after she arrived at the hospital's emergency room at 10 p.m. He said she had apparently gone home after the fire but became ill. Her name has not been released and a cause of death has not been determined. He said eight other passengers were treated at the hospital and released.

Port Richey police said 15 people were injured in the fire and it was originally believed that none of the injuries were life threatening.

The shuttle boat caught fire about 4 p.m. Sunday, quickly engulfing the boat close to shore near residential neighborhoods.

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 (91 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 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."

Jandali said passengers had to leap about 12 feet (3 meters) 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 neighbors, 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 late Sunday to calls by the AP seeking information.

News footage at the site showed survivors cloaked in blankets trying to warm themselves after getting to shore.

Authorities said the Coast Guard, sheriff's office, police and other agencies took part in rescue operations.

First there were shouts, then screams and then black smoke billowing into sunny Florida skies as a shuttle boat used to carry patrons to a casino ship offshore rapidly became engulfed in flames. But all of the crew and dozens of passengers safely escaped by jumping overboard into chilly waters on an unusually cold winter day on the Gulf Coast.

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.

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 35 miles (55 kilometres) northwest of Tampa. But as the vessel turned back, flames kicked up and people began jumping overboard into shallow water, according to witness accounts.

One woman died and 14 others were injured, a hospital spokesman said.

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 realized it was the boat just about 100 yards (91 metres) 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 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."

Jandali said passengers had to leap about 12 feet (3 metres) 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 late Sunday to calls by the AP seeking information.

News footage at the site showed survivors cloaked in blankets trying to warm themselves after getting to shore.

Authorities said the Coast Guard, sheriff's office, police and other agencies took part in rescue operations.

CNBC contributed to this report.