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Survivor Recounts Florida Casino Shuttle Boat Fire

New Port Richey Fire Rescue
A casino shuttle caught fire Sunday afternoon just off the coast of Port Richey.

A survivor of Sunday's casino shuttle boat fire in the Gulf of Mexico described a chaotic scene as passengers had to jump into the chilly water.

Robert Handzus told The Tampa Bay Times Tuesday that the crew of The Island Lady casino shuttle moved passengers around the 72-foot wood-hulled vessel as fire began smoldering on both sides on Sunday. Fifty passengers then jumped ship, just off a residential area where neighbors provided shelter.

"At first, they told us to go to the top deck," said Handzus. "Then they told us to go down to the bow, and we had to jump off the bow."

One of those who jumped into the water, Carrie Dempsey, died later that night while being treated in a hospital. An autopsy has been scheduled to determine the cause.

Handzus, who has had military training, said he was calm during the chaos, but not all the passengers kept their cool as the captain maneuvered the ship back to shore, grounding it in shallow water so the passengers could escape.

"It was a real mess for the 70- and 80-year-olds," he said. "People were yelling out for life vests."

The 62-year-old Handzus added, "They (the crew) knew it was going bad for five minutes and they didn't pass out any life vests."

Handzus said he jumped from the bow and hit the water 10 feet below, then got up and walked to shore.

Spokeswoman Beth Fifer apologized on behalf of the company. She says they don't know what caused the fire, which also injured 14 other passengers. She told the Times that there had been no indications of problems with the vessel.

"If we had any type of idea that there was a problem, we wouldn't have left the dock," she said.

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