Huntington native Larry Santangelo was returning to his Port Richey, Florida neighborhood Sunday afternoon when two sheriff’s cars raced past him and he could see smoke billowing ahead.
“I thought my house was on fire,” Santangelo said. “Then I realized the fire was on the water, and I saw all of these people walking out of the water.”
Santangelo, 57, said that as he watched the people emerge from the waist-deep water, dazed and shivering on an unusually chilly day, their numbers continued to grow.
“Originally I thought it was a small boat fire when a couple of people walked up — then came another five people, then another ten people, and they kept coming,” Santangelo said. “I parked my truck and ushered people into the garage.”
Those Santangelo helped were among the 50 passengers in addition to crew members forced to jump from a casino shuttle boat that caught fire just after 4 p.m. Sunday near his waterfront neighborhood as it headed into the Gulf of Mexico.
One the passengers, a woman, 42, was treated and released from Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point but died after apparently becoming ill at home, said spokesman Kurt Conover.
The woman’s name had not been released Monday night and the cause of her death has not been determined, Conover said. Eight other passengers were treated at the hospital and released, he said. Fourteen people were injured and it was not immediately clear what ignited the fire, authorities said.
The boat experienced engine problems after leaving the dock at Port Richey, a community about 35 miles northwest of Tampa, authorities said. As the vessel turned back, flames kicked up and people began jumping overboard into shallow water, said Port Richey Police Chief Gerard DeCanio.
The boat’s destination had been an offshore casino ship but after the blaze broke out the captain turned the vessel around and grounded it near Santangelo’s home.
“I live on the tip of the gulf and the bay on Harborpointe Island,” Santangelo, 57, said in a telephone interview Monday. “You have water in front of you and water in back of you.”
The casino boat passes his house daily, Santangelo said, and the fire broke out on the boat in water across the street from his home.
“At one point I had fifteen people in my garage and that grew to about sixty or seventy,” he said. ”There were the 50 [passengers] from the boat, police and neighbors plus crew members.”
Santangelo said he quickly gathered dry clothing and towels for the passengers, who dressed inside his expansive garage.
“A lot of people were freezing,” Santangelo said. “I brought twenty or thirty towels, big blankets, T-shirts, socks . . . and all of my neighbors came together bringing in coffee and cookies.”
Santangelo, a product developer who moved from Huntington to the area with his family when he was 12, said the passengers ages appeared to range from about 20 to 70.
Many of them were in shock as they stood around the garage trying to regroup and had little to say except for expressions of gratitude that they were safe and someone had come to their aid, Santangelo said.
“There were a lot of ‘thank yous’ and appreciation that a lot of people came together” to help them, said Santangelo, who also owns the Rock Solid Stone Centers landscape supply company in Florida.
“Some just talked about jumping into the water and being so grateful that they were going to be able to have comfort,” he said.
Helping the passengers “was something you just had to do,” said Santangelo, himself, the owner of a 25-foot boat. “I just happened to be one of the first on the scene.”
With The Associated Press