PASCO COUNTY, Fla. – All 50 people on board a casino shuttle boat were able to get safely to shore after the vessel caught fire just off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico late Sunday afternoon.
Pasco deputies assisted Pasco Fire Rescue and the Coast Guard rescue people from a sudden boat fire caused by an unknown engine issue, according to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.
Authorities responded around 4:17 p.m.
The boat was filled with passengers being shuttled to the Tropical Breeze casino boat, which is anchored in the Gulf of Mexico roughly three miles off the coast.
Engulfed in flames, the vessel wound up just offshore near Harbor Point, near Bay Blvd in Port Richey.
Horrified witnesses on shore in nearby homes watched as passengers jumped.
Terrified witnesses watched as people on board a casino boat shuttle jumped into the Gulf waters to escape a fire.
“We were terrified for everyone on board because they were jumping out very slowly,” Bakr Jandali said.
Jandali and other neighbors were some of the first to assist panicked passengers as they made their way onto shore.
“They were pulling clothes of their closest to bring out to us to put on to keep warm, said Shelia Mcaffee, who on board with her husband.
“We had to jump eight or ten feet into the water and then get from the boat to shore.”
Mcaffee’s husband Darrell said that will be the last time they press their luck for a while.
“I think this is the last of our trips on the casino boat,” he said.
By early Sunday evening, all passengers had been accounted for and Port Richey Police Chief Gerard DeCanio said no one was seriously hurt. Though more than a dozen people were hospitalized – mostly for smoke inhalation and chest pains. It is currently unknown whether any passengers will look towards maritime attorneys in order to receive any compensation from the traumatic event.
DeCanio credited the captain’s quick thinking which he believes prevented a major tragedy.
“What he did was he brought (the shuttle) closer to shore, actually almost beaching the boat,” DeCanio said. “The water was very shallow and the people were able to jump off into the water and actually walk ashore.
UPDATE | All passengers aboard casino boat that caught fire now accounted for https://t.co/TVM4Q00BJ7— Samantha Mitchell (@sammitchh101) January 14, 2018
Wet but uninjured passengers were transported from the scene by a Pasco County bus.
Mark Falcone, a manager with the family-owned Tropical Breeze Casino also praised the work of his captain.
“They do go through their drills so they know exactly what to do in a situation like this,” he said.
Falcone said the shuttle destroyed in the fire was their one and only but it’s a small price to pay knowing nobody was killed.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission also responded to the scene, along with Port Richey police and the Marine and Air Unit.