Woman dies after large fire on casino boat

- A casino shuttle boat was engulfed in flames near Pasco County, killing one person and injuring a dozen others.

Passengers were seen jumping overboard into the chilly Gulf waters after the boat caught fire Sunday night. There were about 50 people on board and all were accounted for immediately after the fire. 

One adult female passenger died after experiencing "symptoms" later in the evening, according to Port Richey police, but her cause of death has not been released.

Published reports quote the Pasco Medical Examiner and officials at Bayonet Point Hospital as saying 42-year-old Carrie Dempsey of Lutz died Sunday night, hours after initially refusing treatment. 

A hospital spokesperson tells the Associated Press about 14 people were injured. 

Engine problems on board the shuttle boat for the Tropical Breeze Casino Cruise led the captain to turn the boat around and head back to the dock around 4 p.m. Sunday.

Before the boat could make it back to the dock, it went up in flames. 

About 50 people, passengers and crew, had to jump from the boat into the chilly waters to safety.

The boat was in shallow enough water that people were able to wade to the shore of a nearby neighborhood, where neighbors aided them with towels and water.

More than a dozen passengers were taken to the hospital for chest pain, smoke inhalation and other injuries.

It was an ordeal passengers onboard are still trying to wrap their minds around.

“It smelled like an electrical fire, and then the crew came on and they started saying they were having engine issues, told us we needed to move up to the upper deck,” said Darrell McAfee.

“The captain fortunately got the boat to shore, he ran it aground, which is great, and they directed all of us to jump from the front of the boat off the bow,” McAfee said.

He said the water was less than four-feet deep, and shockingly cold. Water temperatures were in the low 60s.

Darrell and his wife Shelia swam to shore, but Darrell didn’t stop there.

“He went back in the water several times and helped other people get out because people got stuck in the mud, some people were crawling trying to get to shore,” said Shelia McAfee said.

She says the mud was deep and silty, and people were starting to panic.  Luckily, everyone made it to shore in Harbor Pointe.

Rescued passengers were frigid and wet, but first responders and even neighbors jumped into action to help.

“The people in the homes brought clothes out to us, they were pulling clothes out of their closets to bring out to us to put on to keep warm, and blankets,” said Shelia.

She says some even opened their homes and garages so they could stay warm, and brought out food and hot drinks.

About 15 people were taken to local hospitals after complaining of chest pain and smoke inhalation. Everyone else walked away bundled up with minor bumps and bruises.

For Darrell and Shelia, they’re going to take a break from the games after gambling with their lives, they say.

“I think this is the last of our trips on the casino boat,” Darrell said.

Former passengers say they were shocked when they saw the boat fire. "I couldn't believe it," said Judy Schroeder, a former passenger who saw video of the boat fire on the news. "I said, 'Oh my gosh! I think that's down where we used to go,' because I only live down the street about five miles."

Schroeder spoke highly of her time on board the Tropical Breeze nearly two decades ago. 

Recent reviews of the casino cruise are not as favorable online. Tropical Breeze has just two out of five starts on the customer review website Yelp.

A passengers wrote a comment that read, "his boat should be condemned. It was dirty, dusty..."

Another passenger wrote, "Their website is deceptive. There is no beautiful looking casino boat in the Gulf as shown. The casino boat [is] much smaller and older."

"It's scary. Most business owners like us, we do the best we can and we try to keep everyone safe. It's a crazy world, dangerous, and things happen," said Erik Soujanen, Captain of the Gill Dawg rental boat that travels the same route as the casino shuttle boat daily.

Tropical Breeze released the following statement: 

"Tropical Breeze Casino LLC wishes to extend our heartfelt sympathies to all those affected by the fire we experienced on our shuttle vessel, Island Lady, on Sunday afternoon. We were shocked to hear that one of the evacuated passengers had gone to the hospital hours after the fire and was reported to have died. our hearts go out to the passenger's family."

"We pledge to assist and cooperate with all authorities as they seek to find out what caused this fire. built in 1994, Island Lady was certified to carry up to 149 passengers. Tropical Breeze Casino began using the vessel to transport passengers beginning in late 2015. In the 2 years that the company has used it, the vessel has safely transported thousands of passengers. The vessel was most recently inspected in March 2017, and it received its renewed Certificate of Inspection at the time. The March inspection included no only a review of the vessel's interior and engine systems, but the vessel was also removed from the water for an examination of its hull."

The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating the fire and looking into the actions of all crew members, and the condition of the boat, to determine what caused the fire.

The casino will be responsible for removing the boat from the water.

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