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Woman dies after fire on casino boat off Florida’s coast

TAMPA, Fla.  — A female passenger has died hours after a casino boat caught fire off Florida's Gulf Coast, forcing her and about 50 other passengers and crew to jump into the chilly waters to escape.

Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point spokesman Kurt Conover said Monday that the woman died late Sunday, shortly after she arrived at the hospital's emergency room at 10 p.m. He said she had apparently gone home after the fire but became ill.

Pasco County Sheriff's Office spokesman Kevin Doll said the victim was 42. Her name has not been released and a cause of death has not been determined. Conover said eight other passengers were treated at the hospital and released.

Port Richey police said 15 people were injured in the fire. Officials originally said no injuries were life threatening.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Michael De Nyse said investigators will determine the cause of the fire and examine the history of the boat and the company, Tropical Breeze Casino. The company said early Monday it might have a statement later in the day.

The shuttle boat caught fire about 4 p.m. Sunday, quickly engulfing the boat close to shore near residential neighborhoods.

Port Richey Police Chief Gerard DeCanio said the shuttle boat experienced engine problems after leaving the dock at Port Richey, a suburban community about 35 miles (55 kilometers) northwest of Tampa. But as the vessel turned back, flames kicked up and people began jumping overboard into shallow water, according to witness accounts.

Larry Santangelo, 57, said he had just driven into his neighborhood when he saw smoke and fire and thought a house — possibly his own — was ablaze. But then he realized it was the boat just about 100 yards (91 meters) offshore.

He told the Tampa Bay Times that he then saw people wandering about confused, wet and cold, after they reached land. One woman collapsed upon reaching shore and vomited, he said. Santangelo said he took about 30 of the passengers into his garage to warm up and recover.

"It was so windy and they were soaking wet," said Santangelo. He worried that some might suffer from hypothermia.

It wasn't immediately clear what caused the fire, which sent a huge plume of dark black smoke wafting over sunny skies on an unusually chilly winter day in the Tampa Bay region.

"It looked pretty dramatic because the shuttle boat burned really fast," DeCanio told The Associated Press by phone.

Another witness told the Tampa Bay Times the shuttle boat passes regularly by his family's home, carrying patrons to and from a casino ship offshore. But he knew something was wrong when smoke cut across the sunny Florida skies and he heard shouts and screams.

"They didn't have much time to decide whether or not to jump," said Bakr Jandali, 19, who was with his family at home nearby when they heard the commotion. "The fire was moving fast. It was a hard jump."

Jandali said passengers had to leap about 12 feet (3 meters) and wade through somewhat shallow water. He said passengers waded in waist-deep water before reaching land. Residents then offered them towels, socks and water to drink.

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

The shuttle boat regularly carries people back and forth from the Tropical Breeze Casino Cruise, which is offshore because it can't legally operate close to land, according to authorities. They said the shuttle vessel was headed out to the casino ship at the time of the fire.

News footage at the site showed survivors cloaked in blankets trying to warm themselves after getting to shore.

Authorities said the Coast Guard, sheriff's office, police and other agencies took part in rescue operations.