TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — A shuttle boat ferrying patrons to a casino ship off the Florida Gulf Coast caught fire near shore Sunday afternoon, and dozens of passengers and crew safely made it to land with some jumping overboard to escape, authorities said.
Port Richey Chief of Police Gerard DeCanio said all 50 passengers and the crew reached safety as big flames rapidly consumed the shuttle boat, sending a huge plume of dark smoke skyward over sunny skies on an unusually chilly winter day in the greater Tampa Bay region.
"It looked pretty dramatic because the shuttle boat burned really fast," DeCanio told The Associated Press by phone.
DeCanio said there were no life-threatening injuries. But Pasco County Fire officials said 15 people were taken to the hospital to be checked after complaining of chest pain and smoke inhalation.
The police chief said the shuttle boat was close to shore when it experienced engine problems and the crew then decided to turn back as smoke belched and then flames kicked up.
Pasco County Fire Rescue official Shawn Whited said some passengers on board the vessel jumped in the water to get away from the fire and swam to shore before the rescue boats arrived. A multiagency rescue operation was conducted as the boat burned just offshore.
News footage at the site showed survivors cloaked in blankets 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 to messages left late Sunday with the company.