TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — A boat shuttling patrons to a casino ship off the Florida Gulf Coast became swiftly engulfed by flames Sunday afternoon, and dozens of passengers and crew escaped by jumping into chilly waters near shore, authorities said.
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.
Port Richey Chief of Police Gerard DeCanio said all 50 passengers and the crew reached safety as the fast-spreading flames consumed the shuttle boat just off the shore, sending a huge plume of dark smoke across 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.
A witness told The Tampa Bay Times that she heard screams before he saw the smoke rising.
"They didn't have much time to decide whether or not to jump," said Bakr Jandali, 19. "It was a hard jump."
The passengers had to jump about 12 feet (3 meters) into the chilly waters, and then received help from area residents who offered them towels, socks and water to drink.
DeCanio said the shuttle boat was close to shore when it experienced engine problems after leaving the dock at Port Richey, a suburban community about 35 miles (55 kilometers) northwest of Tampa. He said the crew decided to turn back veering close to a residential area as smoke belched and flames then kicked up.
Pasco County Fire Rescue official Shawn Whited said passengers on board the vessel jumped to get away from the fire and swam the chilly waters to shore, while some were rescued by other boats. A multiagency rescue operation was conducted as the boat burned just offshore.
News footage at the site showed survivors cloaked in blankets trying to warm themselves after reaching safety.
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.
Tropical Breeze Casino Cruises didn't immediately respond late Sunday to calls for information.