1. News

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.


  1. Harold Fritz, 75, was awarded the nation's highest and rarest honor, the Medal of Honor, for his actions in 1969. The Army lieutenant saved his platoon during an ambush in the Vietnam war. He spoke to students at Farnell Middle School in Tampa. MARLENE SOKOL  |  Times
    Harold Fritz wanted to talk about teachers’ salaries and education. The kids wanted selfies with one of the 71 living recipients of the nation’s highest honor.
  2. PDQ's new Trinity location features a self-serve sauce bar with seven signature sauces perfect for dipping chicken tenders. Courtesy of PDQ
    Both chains are expanding locally and held grand opening celebrations this month with giveaways and free food.
  3. Casey Cane has resigned as chair of Pinellas County’s Housing Finance Authority in the wake of a Tampa Bay Times story about his failure to disclose an arrest for a financial felony when he was 19. He also serves as a Palm Harbor fire commissioner. Casey Cane
    Casey Cane failed to disclose his arrest for a financial felony in 2006. He said he didn’t think he had to reveal that information.
  4. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor speaks to about 75 people Tuesday at a city conference on innovation and collaboration. (City of Tampa photo by Janelle McGregor) Janelle McGregor
    City Hall brought together startups and the nonprofits that nurture them for a discussion of possible ideas to improve city operations and service.
  5. Scott Purcell, a senior geophysicist with GeoView, left, and Mike Wightman, president of GeoView, use ground-penetrating radar to scan a portion of King High School campus in search for Ridgewood Cemetery. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    Preliminary answers from the ground-penetrating radar could come as soon as next week.
  6. A federal judge gas stayed the Nov. 7 execution of death row inmate James Dailey, 73, for the 1985 murder of 14-year-old Shelly Boggio. Left: Dailey at his 1987 trial, where he was convicted and sentenced to death. Middle: Dailey in 1993, when he was again sentenced to die. Right: The most current photo of Dailey on Florida's Death Row. Tampa Bay Times
    Dailey was set to be put to death Nov. 7. A judge ordered his execution to be postponed to give his attorneys time to present their claims. But the state can appeal.
  7. Markeith Loyd, suspected of fatally shooting a Florida police officer, attends his initial court appearance Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, at the Orange County Jail, in Orlando, Fla. Loyd spoke out of turn and was defiant during the appearance on charges of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend. He was injured during his arrest Tuesday night following a weeklong manhunt.
    The same jury found Loyd guilty last week of first-degree murder in the fatal shooting 24-year-old Sade Dixon outside her home in 2016.
  8. The new owner of a dilapidated mobile home park on Gandy Boulevard has sued the city of Tampa over a record-setting fine levied against the property for a massive tree removal in August. [CHARLIE FRAGO | Times]
    A Gandy Boulevard mobile home park owner is suing the city of Tampa over a record $420,000 fine .
  9. Dashboard camera video shows a Tampa police cruiser pursuing Dusharn Weems through a parking lot. A second later, Weems is fatally injured when the car strikes him. Courtesy Haydee Oropesa
    The family of Dusharn Weems, 23, claims an officer intentionally struck him after he was spotted driving a stolen car.
  10. Evangeline Cummings posted a video on Twitter of what appears to be a wasp stinging a coral snake that was dangling from a branch attempting to eat a dead snake. Evangeline Cummings/Twitter
    A coral snake found that out the hard way and a Florida woman caught it all on camera.