Passenger dies after fire engulfs casino shuttle on Florida’s Gulf Coast

Island Lady

One person died and 14 people were injured after a casino transport shuttle caught fire near Port Richey, Fla., and burned to the waterline.

The 72-foot Island Lady left its Port Richey dock shortly before the fire started at 1617 on Jan. 14. The captain intentionally grounded the vessel in about 3 feet of water, allowing the 50 passengers and crew to jump off. None were wearing life jackets.

The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating the fire, and a spokesman declined to comment on the ongoing inquiry.

Gerard DeCanio, chief of police for Port Richey, said Island Lady encountered engine trouble soon after leaving its dock. He praised the captain, identified in media reports as Mike Batten, for steering the vessel so close to land.

“Once he realized the vessel was having engine trouble, he turned the boat around or was in the process of turning the boat around when smoke started coming out of the engine room,” DeCanio said. “The captain had the foresight to bring it in as far as the boat would probably go. I think he grounded the boat so people were only in waist- to knee-deep water.”

Island Lady is certified to carry up to 149 passengers. It generally runs from Port Richey to the Tropical Breeze Casino cruise, which operates in international waters in the Gulf of Mexico. The shuttle generally takes about 45 minutes to cover nine miles between shore and the larger casino boat.

Island Lady was en route to the casino ship when it caught fire. Videos show passengers jumping overboard to escape the flames; several people reported injuries during the evacuation.

“It looks like the boat is going to blow and there are still people in the water,” one woman said in a 911 call released shortly after the incident. “It’s completely on fire.”

Passenger Carrie Dempsey, 42, of Lutz, Fla., died at the hospital more than six hours after the fire. DeCanio recalled seeing her after the fire and did not notice any visible injuries.

It wasn’t clear if her death was related to the accident. Authorities conducted an autopsy, but the results were not available at press time.

In a statement released shortly after the incident, Tropical Breeze Casino said the 24-year-old, wood-hulled Island Lady underwent its most recent Coast Guard inspection about 10 months earlier, in March 2017.

“In the two years that the company has used it, the vessel has safely transported thousands of passengers,” the company statement said. “The March inspection included not only a review of the vessel’s interior and engine systems, but the vessel was also removed from the water for an examination of its hull.”

A company spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.

Island Lady was destroyed in the fire. Tropical Breeze Casino resumed operations a few days later with other shuttle boats.

By Professional Mariner Staff