PORT RICHEY – In their first public meeting since a casino boat fire caused dozens of passengers to jump into frigid water near shore, Port Richey officials spoke Tuesday of responders' heroism and sorrow over the death of a young mother following the event.
On Jan. 14, a passenger boat operated by Tropical Breeze Casino was on its way to drop off 49 people on a gambling boat in international waters, where gambling is legal.
During the trip, the 72-foot, wooden-hulled boat had problems and the captain, Mike Batten, turned it around and grounded it about 100 feet from land.
By then, the boat was engulfed in flames, and passengers began jumping from the boat into waist-deep, mucky water to the horror of residents watching from the Harborpointe Drive neighborhood.
Everyone survived the chaotic scene except Carrie Dempsey, a 42-year-old mother of two from Lutz, who was pronounced dead that night at Bayonet Regional Medical Center.
During a City Council meeting Tuesday, Police Chief Gerard DeCanio mourned Dempsey's passing, saying he witnessed emergency responders treat her at the scene.
"I saw her while the medics were doing her vitals before they transported her, and unfortunately she passed away a few hours later," he said.
DeCanio praised his officers who responded and thanked other agencies that were at the scene, including Pasco County Emergency Fire and Sheriff's Office, New Port Richey Police, police from Tarpon Springs and Dunedin, Florida Fish & Wildlife, and the U.S. Coast Guard.
The chief lauded the response by Port Richey Police Detective Angel Russo, and officers Zane Zebetka and Jason Zimmerman — who were first on the scene.
"They got there right in the inception of this incident," DeCanio said. "They dropped their gear and ran right into that water, right into that muck, and were able to assist I don't know how many people and bring them to shore."
City leaders also spoke of the heroism of civilians who helped cold and scared passengers making their way ashore. DeCanio recalled residents bringing people coffee, blankets, towels and clothes. Some people even let survivors take showers in their homes, he said.
"The Harborpointe community was amazing. They turned out in force," DeCanio said.
City Council members agreed that as bad as the incident was with the loss of life, it could have been worse without first responders and citizens helping.
"We thank you all. There are a whole lot of unsung heroes out there," said Mayor Dale Massad.
DeCanio also gave credit to Batten for turning the boat around and getting it as close to shore as possible.
"We thought we had gotten through the night without any fatalities, but unfortunately we had one," he said. "But had that captain not brought it closer and run it aground and was out any further, I think we would have had a lot more fatalities."
DeCanio said the city is planning a ceremony to give out awards to civilians and first responders for their actions during the incident.
The chief is in talks with the U.S. Coast Guard about removing the boat wreckage once an investigation is concluded. The removal will require permits, inspections and precautions for the removal of hazardous materials, he said
"So it's going to be quite an undertaking," DeCanio said.