Captain's actions praised after Florida casino shuttle caught fire

(PORT RICHEY, Fla.) — The captain of the casino shuttle boat that caught fire Sunday afternoon made smart, fast decisions that saved lives, according to a spokeswoman for the boat’s owner, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Michael Batten, captain of 72-foot Island Lady, decided against handing out life jackets and instead ran the vessel aground because flames were spreading so fast, said Beth Fifer, spokeswoman for Tropical Breeze Casino Cruise.

"If we would have taken the time to hand out life jackets, we would be talking several deaths right now," Fifer said. Batten made the decision "knowing that if he ran it aground, he was in shallow-enough water where life jackets were not a tool that he was going to be able to use."

Andrew Fossa, chief of Pasco County Fire Rescue, echoed Fifer's statement about Batten's actions. "The boat captain did a phenomenal job of getting the boat so close to shore," Fossa said.

A female passenger, one of 50 passengers and crew who jumped from the boat, died while undergoing treatment at a nearby hospital. Fourteen others were treated for chest pain, smoke inhalation and other injuries.

The cause of the fire is not known, although initial reports indicated Island Lady experienced engine problems shortly after its departure Sunday. The boat, built in 1994, passed a U.S. Coast Guard inspection in March 2017, which was good until November 2018, according to Coast Guard records. The Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Pasco County Sheriff’s have all launched investigations.

In October 2014, a shuttle for the same casino operator caught fire in the Pithlachascotee River while only a captain and two crewmembers were on board. They all survived, rescued by a passing boat.

The $800,000 Express Shuttle II was a total loss, according to a NTSB report on the incident. The shuttle had just delivered 78 people to a casino boat. The NTSB found that the fire was likely caused by a broken, improperly installed fuel injection line, which allowed diesel fuel to spill onto the engine and catch fire.

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By Professional Mariner Staff