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Saturday, Feb 17, 2018
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Mother of two, 42, identified as casualty after Port Richey boat fire

PORT RICHEY — As the boat disappeared in smoke and flames Sunday, as people leaped into the cold waters below, the neighborhood rallied. Residents helped the survivors ashore, gave them blankets and opened their homes to keep them warm.

The neighbors of Harborpointe Drive felt good that they were able to save about 50 lives.

Their joy ended Monday when they learned that one of the passengers died that night.

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

She was Carrie Dempsey, a 42-year-old mother of two from Lutz, according to the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office.

She was pronounced dead at 10:42 p.m. Sunday while being treated at Bayonet Point Regional Medical Center.

News of her death spread Monday morning through texts between neighbors.

"Today it hurt me because I felt like everything worked out for everybody and nobody got hurt," Larry Santangelo, 57, said. "Then you hear that and it’s disappointing, actually very depressing."

That grim news was the only development reported by officials a day after the harrowing boat fire. A phalanx of agencies launched investigations to determine what caused the fire and Dempsey’s death.

Many other questions remain unanswered, such as: How many people remained hospitalized? What condition were they in? What was the safety history of the boat and its crew?

The Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and the Medical Examiner all launched investigations.

The boat was operated by Tropical Breeze Casino Cruise. Spokeswoman Beth Fifer said Monday she had spoken to Dempsey’s father.

"We are just deeply saddened by the loss of that passenger and about any pain or trouble that has been caused to our passengers relating to this incident," she said.

Fifer said she did not know what went wrong with the vessel but it had been inspected by the Coast Guard.

"If we had any type of idea that there was a problem, we wouldn’t have left the dock," she said. "There was no inkling that there was any problems with that vessel whatsoever."

• • •

The boat was called the Island Lady, a 72-foot wooden-hulled T-boat, according to the Coast Guard. It was shuttling passengers to a casino boat in the Gulf of Mexico, where gambling is legal in international waters.

The shuttle is scheduled to depart at 3:30 p.m. every Sunday. Port Richey police said it was heading out to the gulf when the captain noticed there was something wrong with the engine and turned the boat around about 4 p.m.

"When he turned around to come in, that’s when it started to catch fire," said Port Richey police Sgt. Gary Lush.

The vessel was in the Pithlachascotee River, but police said the captain — who was not identified — knew that it was low tide and the passengers could walk to shore. The captain came within 100 yards of land.

"He knew if he got close enough to shore that they could jump out," Lush said. "It was mucky, knee-deep water."

The flames breached the stern, forcing the passengers to the bow. The residents of Harborpointe Drive watched in horror as the 50 or so passengers and crew jumped ship.

"They didn’t have much time to decide whether or not to jump," Bakr Jandali, 19, said Sunday. "The fire was moving fast. It was a hard jump."

That’s because it was still about 12 feet from the deck into the shallow water. They waded waist-deep in the cold water to shore.

Port Richey police officers arrived and helped residents rescue about a dozen people still in the water. Others cared for those who made it ashore.

Christine Hashim on Monday returned to the shore where she waded into the water to help. Scattered on the sand and up the steps to the street were clothing, shoes, socks, a prescription bottle. She gathered the items around sunrise Monday, just in case the owners want them back.

"They were really cold and very scared," Hashim, 50, said.

Officials said about 15 people complained of chest pain, smoke inhalation and other minor injuries as a result of the fire. There were also concerns about hypothermia after they waded in cold water on a chilly day in Florida, with temperatures in the 50s.

It took a county bus to get everyone to the hospital. None of the other passengers were identified Monday, and no information was released about their medical conditions.

• • •

Dempsey left behind two young children. Her husband, Joseph Dempsey II, died at the age of 33 in 2011, according to records.

Her family declined to speak to a Tampa Bay Times reporter.

Coast Guardsmen inspected the boat on Monday morning.

A small boat took four of them to the burned-out remains. Onlookers came by the cul-de-sac to get a glimpse of what was left of the vessel.

There was barely anything left of the boat above the waterline. An American flag, the only thing to survive the fire, waved from the bow.

The guardsmen boarded the charred boat, took photographs and left. They declined to comment.

Coast Guard spokesman Michael De Nyse said the agency could not comment about fire while the investigation is ongoing.

Another Tropical Breeze boat caught fire in 2004. Fifer said the NTSB ruled it was a repair issue.

"We intend to cruise again," she said.

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

 
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Public safety

Mother of two, 42, identified as casualty after Port Richey boat fire