TAMPA (WFLA) – Where were the life jackets? That’s what Qaadia Culbreath wants to know after he was forced to jump from a burning casino shuttle boat in the Gulf of Mexico near Port Richey on Sunday afternoon.
“It was like a do or die situation. But it was like anyway it goes, you got to take a chance. You’re going to jump or either stay here and burn,” he said.
Culbreath said he doesn’t know how to swim and he was afraid to get into the water. He was hanging from the edge of the boat as it was burning.
“The guy that was in the water said, ‘Man jump, jump, jump.’ I was like, ‘Man I can’t swim.’ So I was trying to climb off and I was dangling off the metal hanger in the front of the boat because I didn’t want to let go to drown.”
Fifty people, including crew members and passengers, jumped off the boat that was shuttling passengers from land to the Tropical Breeze Casino.
A 42-year-old woman died after going to the hospital Sunday night when she fell ill. Port Richey police said 15 people were injured in the fire.
Culbreath was on the boat with two friends who bought the trip for him for his birthday. He will turn 30 on Wednesday.
He said they were outside when they saw the smoke coming from the engine in the back of the boat. The captain turned the boat and headed for shore.
Culbreath said the crew was chaotic. He kept asking for life jackets, but was told to just jump.
“Y’all was doing enough running around on the boat, y’all could’ve at least told us something or at least directed. I don’t care if it was just one life jacket, because guess what, that one life jacket could’ve saved that one lady.”
He credited the captain for his actions, if he hadn’t gotten to shallow water, more people could have died.
He also thanked the residents on shore of who helped and gave them blankets. Culbreath was able to take some photos, but said he didn’t know the well-being of the other passengers. Everyone made it to shore.
The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating the fire and will look into the actions of all crew members and the condition of the boat to determine what caused the fire.
The Assistant to the CEO of Tropical Breeze Casino Cruise issued the following statement:“Yes, there are life jackets on board. There was absolutely not one second of time to get life jackets out and put on those people. Not one second. That fire went up so fast that if our crew would have attempted to start dispensing life jackets, people would have burnt. People would have burnt. There was not a chance for life jackets. The other thing is, the captain and the maneuver that he made was purposely to save lives. And that maneuver that he made was to run ashore. He ran ashore so that the water would not be deep and we would not have drownings. The water the people jumped off in was no more than waist high. There was absolutely not one second available for life jackets. People would have perished if we would have tried to do life jackets.”
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