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Casino shuttle boat destroyed by fire as 50 passengers abandon ship in frigid Gulf

A casino shuttle boat headed into international waters from Pasco County caught fire Sunday afternoon with about 50 passengers aboard. Authorities said that all passengers made it to shore and survived the ordeal.
Published Jan. 18, 2018

PORT RICHEY — A casino shuttle boat headed into the Gulf of Mexico caught fire Sunday, forcing 50 passengers to jump into chilly water just off a residential neighborhood.

The boat was headed to an offshore casino ship, where gambling is legal, when the fire broke out just after 4 p.m.

The captain turned the boat around and grounded it near a residential community on Harborpointe Drive. Passengers jumped into the frigid gulf waters and waded to shore as flames destroyed the boat.

Everyone survived, authorities said. Fifteen people complaining of chest pain, smoke inhalation and other minor injuries were taken to a hospital to be checked, authorities said.

Bakr Jandali, 19, lives on Harborpointe Drive and said he heard the shouting first. Then he saw billowing clouds of smoke rising from the boat.

Jandali and his family, along with several of his neighbors, watched as dozens of passengers crowded near the bow as the blaze quickly spread from the rear of the boat.

"They didn't have much time to decide whether or not to jump," Jandali said. "The fire was moving fast. It was a hard jump."

The passengers leapt about 12 feet into very cold and somewhat shallow water, he said. They waded through murky, waist-deep water arriving not too far from his back yard.

"All of us, my family and the neighbors, brought them towels and water," Jandali said. "They were so cold."

When one woman reached the shore, Jandali said, she collapsed and vomited.

His father, Imad Jandali, a pediatrician at All Pediatric Care in Spring Hill, said the woman appeared to be suffering from cold shock.

"It was horrifying," the younger Jandali said. "I thought for sure someone might have died."

PRIOR FIRE: He still has nightmares: Deckhand recalls prior casino boat fire

Jason Zimmerman of the Port Richey Police Department said he and two fellow officers — Detective Angel Russo and Officer Zane Zabetka — arrived to a chaotic scene.

"The boat was fully engulfed in flames and everybody was off the boat. There were multiple people in the water," Zimmerman recounted. "We rescued probably 12 to 15 people that were out in the water," including "a couple of seniors who were face down in the water."

Authorities credited the ship's captain, who brought the burning boat within 100 yards of shore — making it easier for the dozens of passengers to make it safely back to land.

While the fire appears to have started in the engine room, the exact cause remained unclear Sunday evening.

• • •

For Christine Hashim, a nurse anesthetist, emergency situations were nothing new. But she could hardly have expected one to wash ashore near her house.

When a neighbor noted smoke in the air, Hashim said, she looked to the water to see people struggling.

Hashim, 50, entered the water to help the struggling passengers — some of whom appeared to have medical problems, she said. She worried some might suffer from hypothermia.

She said she saw the boat explode. "People were scared," Hashim said.

• • •

Driving into his neighborhood on Harborpointe, Larry Santangelo, 57, thought maybe his home was on fire.

When I got closer, I saw people walking around confused and shaking," Santangelo said.

He was also worried the wet people might suffer hypothermia, so Santangelo invited about 30 passengers into his garage.

"It was so windy and they were soaking wet," he said. "I just started putting them anywhere I could fit them — my garage, my fishing room. I brought them socks and more towels."

Santangelo, originally from Long Island, N.Y., said he sees the boat pass behind his home nearly every day. Sunday night, he was still trying to clean up after the dozens who took shelter in his home.

"I'm washing about 70 towels tonight," he said.

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office assisted in the rescue along with several agencies including the Coast Guard, Pasco Fire Rescue, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and Port Richey police.

"At the end of the day, everyone's cold, everyone's wet, but everyone's safe," Russo said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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