In Florida, one person reportedly died while around 14 others were injured on Sunday afternoon after a wooden shuttle boat taking passengers to the offshore Tropical Breeze Casino in the Gulf of Mexico caught fire and sunk.
According to reports from the local Tampa Bay Times and Sun-Sentinel newspapers, the 72-foot Island Lady was making the 45-minute trip from the small community of Port Richey into international waters where it intended to dock with its larger counterpart. Its approximately 50 passengers were then purportedly scheduled to transfer to the Tropical Breeze Casino and enjoy a range of games including roulette and blackjack, which are illegal in the southern state’s non-aboriginal casinos.
However, the 12-year-old shuttle owned by Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz LLC reportedly experienced engine trouble soon after leaving its home port some 35 miles northwest of Tampa and was in the process of returning when it caught fire about 100 yards off the coast of Pasco County.
The newspapers reported that the fire spread so quickly that passengers were forced to jump approximately twelve feet into waist-deep water and trudge some 100 yards to shore where they were immediately met by sympathetic locals offering blankets, towels and bottles of water.
“It looked pretty dramatic because the shuttle boat burned really fast,” Port Richey Police Chief Gerard DeCanio reportedly told the newspapers via the Associated Press news service.
Despite all of the passengers and crew making it to shore, the Tampa Bay Times reported that a woman later identified by the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office as Carrie Dempsey from the nearby community of Lutz later died at the Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point. The 42-year-old mother of two after initially went home after escaping the fire but afterward went to the hospital’s emergency room when she became ill.
Immediately following the incident, local resident Larry Santangelo reportedly explained that he had taken around 30 survivors into his garage so that they could warm themselves amid fears that some could be suffering from the effects of hypothermia.
“It was so windy and they were soaking wet,” 57-year-old Santangelo reportedly told the newspapers.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz LLC is run by local businessman Alex Kolokithas and has been operating out of Port Richey since 2002. The enterprise previously purportedly ran a similar operation off the coast of Texas but that this vessel had been closed by a bankruptcy court in 1992 before the entrepreneur launched the Mr Lucky gaming boat from the small Florida city of Tarpon Springs.
The newspaper moreover revealed that this is not the first time that a shuttle vessel operated by Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz LLC has caught fire following a similar incident some 15 years ago that was ultimately blamed on a faulty fuel line. That ferry had just purportedly finished disembarking some 78 casino passengers when its captain and two crew members required rescuing by a passing boat.
“We are deeply saddened for the loss of our passenger, the 14 injured and anyone else who was affected by this tragedy,” Beth Fifer, a spokesperson for Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz LLC, reportedly told the newspapers on Monday. “If we had any type of idea that there was a problem, we wouldn’t have left the dock. There was no inkling that there were any problems with that vessel whatsoever.”