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Two people were rescued by the Key West Express after they abandoned their 35-foot vessel when it caught fire about 30 miles southwest of Gordon Pass on June 6, 2019. Debbie Flessner, Submitted video

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Debbie Flessner was aboard the Key West Express on Thursday evening when she saw a large plume of black smoke in the distance that appeared in the middle of the ocean.  

When the boat’s captain came over the speaker system and told passengers that they received a distress call from a boat that caught fire, Flessner, 56, of Sarasota, became anxious.  

The two occupants, a man and woman, were aboard the boat when it caught fire about 30 miles southwest of Gordon Pass. They abandoned the vessel for a rescue raft and were picked up, with their two puppies, by the Key West Express.  The Key West Express is a popular ferry operation between Fort Myers Beach and Key West.

“As we got a little closer, we could see the flames and it was pretty awful looking,” Flessner said Friday. “I was a little worried it was not going to be good when we got there. Thank goodness they were in the dinghy." 

Davis Williams, 43, of Tampa, was also aboard the Key West Express. He said the vessel was northbound from Key West when it changed course to assist with the rescue.  

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The ferry had left Key West around 5:30 p.m. Thursday and about two hours into the voyage passengers on the vessel first spotted a plume of smoke in the distance, Williams said.  

As the Key West Express approached the fire, passengers saw two people in a rescue raft waving desperately, Williams said.  

The boat named Ohana, Hawaiian for "family", was registered out of Palmetto.  

"It was absolutely fully engulfed at that point,” Williams said. “There were bright orange flames visible from about a mile out and as we got closer, we were able to holler down to the people.” 

Crews from Collier County fire departments were dispatched to help put out the fire on the boat, which was a 35-foot vessel, according to the Naples Fire-Rescue Department.  

Firefighters met with the occupants of Ohana and confirmed neither was injured, according to Naples Fire-Rescue Department. 

“They were 100 percent okay and in surprisingly good spirits,” Williams said. “They were greeted by hugs on board from all of these random strangers and their two dogs were given some treats.” 

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After the rescue, the ferry continued on its way to Fort Myers Beach, Williams said.  

After an extended attack using foam operations, the fire aboard Ohana was brought under control. The U.S. Coast Guard was coordinating the removal of the vessel, according to Naples Fire-Rescue Department. 

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