Fire belched from the shuttle boat in Tampa on Sunday afternoon as it was heading out on one of its regular runs to a casino ship when the crew decided to turn around.
All of the crew and dozens of passengers safely escaped by jumping overboard into chilly waters on an unusually cold winter day on the Gulf Coast.
Port Richey Police Chief Gerard DeCanio said that the shuttle boat was close to shore near residential neighbourhoods when it experienced engine problems after leaving the dock at Port Richey, a suburban community about 55 kilometres northwest of Tampa.
But as the vessel turned back, flames kicked up and people began jumping overboard into shallow water, according to witness accounts.
Fifteen people complaining of chest pain, smoke inhalation and other minor injuries were taken to the hospital to be checked, authorities said, adding no injuries were life-threatening.
Larry Santangelo, 57, said he had just driven into his neighbourhood when he saw smoke and fire and thought a house — possibly his own — was ablaze. But then he realized it was the boat just about 91 metres offshore.
He said that he then saw people wandering about confused, wet and cold, after they reached land. One woman collapsed upon reaching shore and vomited, he said. Santangelo said he took about 30 of the passengers into his garage to warm up and recover.
He said, “It was so windy and they were soaking wet.”He worried that some might suffer from hypothermia.
It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the fire, which sent a huge plume of dark black smoke wafting over sunny skies on an unusually chilly winter day in the Tampa Bay region.
“It looked pretty dramatic because the shuttle boat burned really fast,” DeCanio told The Associated Press by phone.
The shuttle boat regularly carries people back and forth from the Tropical Breeze Casino Cruise, which is offshore because it can’t legally operate close to land, according to authorities. They said the shuttle vessel was headed out to the casino ship at the time of the fire.