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With a mother's pillow and grandparents' love, children orphaned after boat fire learn a new life

At left: Jules Deutsch and his wife Renee Deutsch talk with reporters in their Carrollwood living room on Wednesday. At right, Carrie Dempsey, 42, is pictured with her children, Megan and Chad Dempsey, now 12. The mother died Jan. 14 after escaping from a casino boat fire off the coast of New Port Richey. [Times staff and family photos]
At left: Jules Deutsch and his wife Renee Deutsch talk with reporters in their Carrollwood living room on Wednesday. At right, Carrie Dempsey, 42, is pictured with her children, Megan and Chad Dempsey, now 12. The mother died Jan. 14 after escaping from a casino boat fire off the coast of New Port Richey. [Times staff and family photos]
Published Feb. 7, 2018

CARROLLWOOD — The yellow ranch house on Nicklaus Circle used to be "Grandma and Grandpa's house." The brother and sister would sometimes drop by with their mother.

But the mother is gone now, and the home is their own.

Carrie Dempsey's 12-year-old twins, Megan and Chad, became orphans Jan. 14 when their mother died hours after jumping from a casino boat off the coast of New Port Richey to escape a fire.

For the twins, her loss also means the loss of the Cheval home she bought with their father, who died from diabetes in 2011. Their grandparents, Jules and Renee Deutsch, now pick them up from after-school sports practices and math club meetings at Martinez Middle School.

Renee Deutsch is still working on preparing chicken dinners the way her daughter did. Megan sleeps with her mother's pillow and blanket, and burrows into them whenever she joins her grandparents on the living room couch to watch Jeopardy. Chad remembers to say "I love you" before he hangs up the phone.

The kids keep busy with school, clubs and sports. They talk about their mother constantly, but never talk of her death. They try to "stay positive" and strong, Jules Deutsch said.

"She gave her children a strength and a fortitude that I don't know how anybody's going to replace," he said.

But when it comes to his own grief, Jules struggles to hold back tears. He points his index finger to his chest, over his heart.

"There's a hole right here, and I don't know if it'll ever heal," he said.

The Deutschs sat in their living room Wednesday, talking with reporters from the Tampa Bay Times and a local television station for the first time since their daughter's strange and unexpected death. Their attorney, Steven Yerrid, deflected reporters' questions on the details of how and why Carrie Dempsey died that night, hours after she was pulled to shore.

The Pasco-Pinellas medical examiner won't release Dempsey's official cause of death without pending results from a full toxicology test.

"Whatever the cause, she suffered a horrific death within a very short time after coming ashore," Yerrid said.

She was the only one of 50 passengers to die.

Homeowners living along Harborpointe Drive in New Port Richey said Dempsey had bruises on her feet when she came to shore. She said her feet hurt, but not so badly to prevent her from joining the 14 other passengers transported to Bayonet Point Regional Medical Center.

But then Dempsey said it felt like her throat was closing up and she couldn't breathe. She didn't have time to go home before family rushed her to the hospital as her tongue and face continued to swell.

"When I first saw her in the ER, she did not look like herself, at all," Renee Deutsch said.

Carrie had become so bloated and swollen she couldn't speak, her parents said. She communicated by writing down short replies to her doctor's questions. A doctor told her parents he was going to perform a tracheotomy and insert a breathing tube.

"We thought everything was going to be okay," Jules Deutsch said. "The doctor said, 'I'm going to put this in, just in case — just in case.'?"

Carrie squeezed her father's hand, but when her mother gave her a quick smile and thumbs-up on the way to surgery, Carrie looked back with panic in her eyes, Renee Deutsch said.

"That was it, that was the last time we saw her," the mother said. "They would not let us see her after she died because she was all bloated and disfigured and they said, 'You don't want to see her.'?"

The boat was operated by Tropical Breeze Casino Cruz.

Neither the company owners nor the captain, Michael Batten, 37, reached out to the family to offer condolences after Dempsey's death, Yerrid said. They also have not responded to interview requests.

Less than a week after the accident, Tropical Breeze's owners filed a petition asking a U.S. district judge to exonerate them completely or limit the company's liability for "personal injury and death claims" to a total of $27,300 for all 50 people aboard.

The action has temporarily paused the three lawsuits already filed in Pasco County courts and requires any passengers hoping to collect damages for injuries sustained in the fire to file claims no later than March 23. Yerrid told the Deutschs not to worry about what he called "legal shenanigans."

"In casinos they say the house usually has the edge and wins," he said, "but they better bet the whole casino on this one because it's not going to be easy to win."

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.

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