The three escaped serious injury, and no passengers were on the SunCruz Casinos shuttle during the unexplained fire.
PORT RICHEY - Minutes away from loading dozens of Sunday morning gamblers, a SunCruz Casinos shuttle was destroyed by fire at the mouth of Pithlachascotee River in Pasco County.
The only people on board were three crew members, who jumped from the burning shuttle to another boat and escaped serious injury. Neither the casino company nor Pasco County firefighters would speculate Sunday on what caused the fire.
But at least one passenger recalled that the same boat's engines malfunctioned a week ago, delaying a run to an offshore casino. Fire officials said Sunday it was fortunate that no passengers were onboard when it caught fire.
"It could have been a catastrophe," Pasco fire battalion chief Greg Gude said after the U.S. Coast Guard secured the drifting, blackened hulk about noon Sunday.
Boater Frank Nichols felt the wake of the passing 75-foot Express Shuttle II and noticed smoke pouring from its cabin door. He and another boater, off-duty Coast Guard Petty Officer Robert Morgan, helped the captain and his crew to Morgan's boat.
"I believe the fire was in the engine room. The cabin wasn't on fire but it was completely engulfed in smoke," Nichols said. "The captain didn't want to get off, but he did when the Coast Guard told him the starboard was all in flames."
The shuttle moves between the docks on the Pithlachascotee to the SunCruz floating casino 9 to 12 miles off shore in the Gulf of Mexico. It had just dropped off a load of passengers to the casino ship and was returning up the river channel for more.
As black smoke billowed from the double-decker vessel built for 140 passengers, the passengers on the casino ship said they struggled to get information.
The popular and profitable SunCruz operation - its motto is "The Fastest Way to Play" - attracts hundreds to its slot machines and gaming tables on busy weekends.
Wayne Bergeron departed on Express Shuttle II at 9:30 a.m. and docked at the casino about 10 a.m. Fifteen minutes later the gamblers saw smoke rising from the river.
Dealers in the casino assured the customers the fire was on land, not aboard the boat they just left, Bergeron said.
"They would not tell us anything. There's a gag order," said Bergeron, a regular customer from Plant City.
Company spokeswoman Beth Henson said talk of engine failure was premature.
"We'll sort though the details and (Monday) we'll know exactly what happened," Henson said.
Dozens of people, including a number of senior citizens, had been waiting to board the shuttle at 11 a.m. Henson said passengers should not fear for their safety. SunCruz runs shuttles to and from the offshore casino seven times a day.
"We have an emergency evacuation plan and all safety measures in effect and we are trained well, just like an airline crew," Henson said.
Several passengers, both those arriving onshore and waiting to leave Sunday afternoon, said the fire was nothing special.
The shuttles hold plenty of lifeboats and flotation devices, passengers said, although it's unclear if the speed of the fire would have left time to equip everyone.
"I've been doing this for years, and it's not a problem," said Lynn Alamo, frustrated to learn the gambling cruise was full when trying to board at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.
SunCruz has faced boating mishaps in the past. A couple of years ago, the state Department of Environmental Protection banned the larger casino ships from plying the Pithlachascotee.
The propellers damaged the river bottom, the state said, so the lighter shuttles started taxiing gamblers out to sea.
In April, a captain had a heart attack and had to be rescued by passengers as the shuttle drifted off course.
The boats also occasionally get mired on sandbars near the river's mouth. Sue Duncan's house in the upscale Harbor Pointe subdivision looks onto the gulf, where the boat caught fire.
The low tide on Sunday left the tidal flats a haunt of clicking crabs and exposed sea grass.
"They've gotten stuck a couple of time off here," Duncan said as she photographed the burning shuttle after it came to rest on a sandbar. "But they usually get off successfully."
To put out the flames, Pasco and Port Richey firefighters dragged hoses across the tidal muck. They hoisted the hose to a waiting Sheriff's Office patrol boat. They puttered around the stricken boat, spraying the hot spots.
Bergeron and other passengers who had taken the shuttle that morning were amazed to see it reduced to a black floating wreckage when they returned about 3 p.m.
"Luckily it was the first boat of the morning," Bergeron said. "Otherwise there would have been people on board returning from gambling. Who knows what would have happened?"