TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — 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 neighborhoods when it experienced engine problems after leaving the dock at Port Richey, a suburban community about 35 miles (55 kilometers) northwest of Tampa, said DeCanio. 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 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 (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.
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.
"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.