PASCO COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Years before his shuttle boat caught fire off the coast of Port Richey, leaving one passenger dead, Captain Michael Batten was arrested for drugs, DUI, contempt of court, violation of probation and concealed weapons among other violations. He even lost his driving privileges for ten years.
But Batten’s rap sheet didn’t stop him from getting his Coast Guard captain’s license sometime after 2014, placing him at the helm of the Island Lady casino shuttle boat when the engine room caught fire on January 14 with 47 passengers and three crew members onboard. One passenger later died and more than a dozen were injured after jumping into shallow water while escaping the burning boat.
Despite his criminal history, Batten’s nautical skill and heroism are being credited with saving lives.
“There is no doubt in my mind that was the best captain in the entire world to have behind the wheel that day,” said Jeff Ambler, a former coworker and manager at the Tropical Cruise Casino.
Ambler says he’s proud of Batten’s actions in maneuvering the shuttle into shallow water while it was on fire.
Ambler says he managed the casino’s operations from Oct. 2015 until Jan. 2017, when he had a falling out with the owners.While working at the casino, Ambler said he observed Batten’s careful navigating skills and attentiveness to safety. “What I did see every day was the captain opening up the hatch and checking that engine,” Ambler said.
However, Ambler noted a lack of emergency training for crew members. That’s the same problem NTSB accident investigators noted after another one of the company’s casino shuttle boats caught fire in 2005 and burned to the waterline.
“The crewmembers firefighting efforts were ineffective in controlling or extinguishing the Express Shuttle II fire because they lacked adequate firefighting training and because the master did not take appropriate fire suppression measures,” a NTSB report later found.
Ambler tells 8 On Your Side emergency training was still a problem before he left the company a year ago.
“That’s one thing we should have done and the owners should have done we should have run more safety drills and fire drills,” Ambler said. “That’s one thing I’dd really like to see change. I’d like to see some fire drills and additional training of the crew. But remember it’s a small operation it’s hard to keep people employed.”
Tropical Cruise Casino spokesperson Beth Fifer declined to comment on Ambler’s claims and wouldn’t answer any other questions related to boat safety and the fire, citing the ongoing joint investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard and the NTSB. Fifer says the company is assisting investigators in determining the cause of the boat fire.