PORT RICHEY — Jay and Tammy Baker were enjoying chicken wings and onion rings with their two young children Tuesday evening as the sun set over the Pithlachascotee River. They watched the boats pass over the crystal water.
One of them, an older power boat which looked to be about 20 feet long, left a nearby marina after filling up with gas. It stopped in the middle of the channel about 5:30 p.m., about half a mile away. It started smoking.
The couple on the boat dropped anchor and went back to the source of the smoke. At first it just looked like exhaust, but it kept getting darker and thicker. Some witnesses reported seeing the white puff of a fire extinguisher.
Jimmy Barry, 46, an unemployed truck driver who was watching from the Hooters deck, saw the smoke and thought the boat would burst into a fireball at any moment. He called the assistant manager, Jack Wagner, who called 911.
It smelled like burning plastic, which meant an electrical fire to Joe Evans, 47, an unemployed heavy machinery operator watching from the park.
The smoke turned black. Two people jumped overboard and swam to shore.
A ship from Suncruz Casino chugged toward the burning boat, armed with a garden hose, trying to put out the fire. But it couldn't get close enough.
Neither could the Port Richey fire engines, blasting water from the shore where the boaters had washed up. Their streams couldn't reach the flames, and the wind blew the shower right back at them.
Now the Hooters diners could see the orange flames and hear them crackle. Then the fire burned through the anchor line.
The boat started drifting. The wind carried the flaming vessel straight toward Hooters. The customers would have to evacuate.
They did so in an orderly fashion; after all, said Rob Young, 64, they all knew it was coming and had been watching it for half an hour. The Bakers tried to finish up their food, and carried their drinks out with them.
The firefighters rolled their hoses out to the dock as the boat, still smoldering, drifted between the two piers. The hose started pumping, but the wreckage stubbornly kept burning. Then the surface of the water, seeping with gasoline, caught fire too. The smoke was a solid column of black until, finally, it stopped.
The boaters, a middle-aged man and woman, were interviewed by police, who would not release their names while the investigation is still open. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office and U.S. Coast Guard are also involved.
The couple declined to comment for this article.
"I'm very upset," the man said. "I've been through a lot — I just had to swim to shore."
All that was left of their boat was a twisted rail and charred hunk of fiberglass. The piers, now cordoned off with caution tape, were slightly singed. The water in front of Hooter's was thick with gasoline and debris, and the bar was covered in foam from the firefighting equipment.
Steve Walker, Hooters' general manager, said he may sue the boaters for damage to the dock and lost sales in the restaurant. Wagner estimated the losses from people who didn't return to pay their checks at $1,350.
The restaurant reopened at 6:20 p.m. A few minutes before 7, a quartet of retirees who had been waiting for their wings and burgers before the evacuation finally had them. It was worth the wait, they said.
Isaac Arnsdorf can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6232.