Mother of 2 lone fatality in shuttle boat fire

By Lauren Verno and Josh Rojas, Team Coverage
Last Updated: Thursday, January 18, 2018, 4:35 PM EST

Some passengers on the Island Lady thought they would have to chose between being burned or jumping into cold water - and some of them did not know how to swim. 

For one of those passengers, the Sunday afternoon pleasure cruise on a casino boat, turned fatal. 

The Pasco Sheriff's Office said Carrie Dempsey, 42, was a passenger and ended up dying later that night at Bayonet Point Regional Medical Center.

Port Richey Police say the boat, with 50 people on board, was headed to casino cruise ship three miles out into the gulf. The captain turned back towards land when police say he started experiencing engine trouble. 

Flames overtook the Island Lady shuttle boat Sunday night near shore in Port Richey. When flames overtook the vessel, forcing everyone to jump off the boat into the harbor. The Coast Guard is still investigating the incident.

Some swam to shore, while others were pulled from the water. 

About 15 people were transported to area hospitals for treatment. Dempsey was the only passenger that died. 

Dempsey, a mother of two, became a widow when her husband passed away in 2011. Her family declined to speak about her death. 

Qaada Culbreath was also one of those people forced to jump from the boat.

"For me it was scary because I knew I couldn't swim and it was like you didn't have a choice," he said. "You could either do that or stand there and burn."

Culbreath said he credits the captain for getting the boat close to shore. But says the boat operators could've done a better job during the emergency.

"People was asking for life jackets and none was provided," he said. "People was asking what was going on and no information was provided. The only information we had was we had to jump. I definitely didn't feel safe."

Beth Fifer with Tropical Breeze Cruise, the operator of the shuttle boat, said there was simply no time to hand out life vests and they were not needed anyway because the water was shallow. Fifer said the incident happened very quickly.

Fifier also released a statement Monday night:

"We were shocked to hear that one of the evacuated passengers had gone to the hospital hours after the fire and was reported to have died. Our hearts go out to the passenger's family. We pledge to assist and cooperate with all authorities as they seek to find out what caused the fire."‚Äč