The quick-thinking sea captain who last Sunday grounded his burning ship on a sandbar off Port Richey near Tampa — allowing 49 passengers, many of them elderly, to wade in knee-deep water to safety — is being hailed as a hero.
Capt. Mike Batten, 37, ran through the burning boat to make sure no one else was onboard before diving off into the shallow waters.
By the time the boat burned to the waterline, every one of the passengers was accounted for, and most said they owed their lives to Batten.
“I was just doing my job,” the quick-thinking sea captain says in an exclusive interview with dailymail.com. “And someone eventually died. I can’t put that out of my head.”
Indeed a woman, 42-year-old mother-of-two Carrie Dempsey, died after the fire.
According to other passengers, she refused treatment after making it to shore alive. But she was admitted at a hospital several hours later after feeling ill and died shortly before 11 p.m. Sunday.
Autopsy results for the young widow are pending.
And while he admits more people could’ve died had he made different decisions, Batten says he’s processing the incident.
“I’d like to go meet her family,” he said.
Batten’s job was to shuttle casino cruise passengers from the Port Richey dock to a larger ship, the Tropical Breeze, in international waters where gambling is legal.
And about 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Batten left the dock for the hour-long ride to the larger ship with 49 passengers: two crew members, 12 casino employees and 36 would-be gamblers.
Nearly half of the gamblers, Batten said, were older people.
“Some of them come every day,” Batten said.
Batten says he did his routine checks. The two 600-hp Caterpillar diesel engines were fine.
Five minutes after departure, Batten said an alarm sounded on his dash panel.
“One of the engines was running really hot,” he said. “As soon as I saw the gauge needle all the way up, I turned the boat around to go back to the dock, left a crew member to steer and I went to the engine room.”
There, Batten says, he didn’t like what he saw.
“There was something wrong with the waterline of one of the engines,” he said, describing it as a line that brings water into the engine to cool it. “Water was spouting all over the place and turning into steam.”
All he knew, Batten says, was that he needed to get back to the dock.
“I idled the engine that was overheating,” he says, “The boat is designed to be operated on just one engine. I told the passengers to all get upstairs to the upper deck.”
Soon, Batten says, flames started shooting out of the engine room. “The boat went up (in flames) like a Christmas tree,” Batten said.
Built in 1994, according to U.S. Coast Guard records, the Island Lady was highly unusual in that it was made entirely of wood.
In his mind, Batten started looking for a sandbar not too far from shore, and he headed there – landing 50 yards from shore.
“I know every sandbar in the area,” he said. “But things were going very fast. There was maybe four minutes from the times the engine started overheating until we reached the sandbar.”
Passengers, he said, were calm throughout the ordeal and followed his instructions. As soon as the boat was grounded, with flames now reaching 50 feet high by some accounts and moving to the bow, stairs were lowered into about eight inches of water and, one by one, the passengers climbed down.
Batten said he had to escort most of them down into the water because the smoke made visibility nearly zero.
With coastline residents waiting on the beach with blankets and warm drinks, passengers then undertook a risky walk in water, mud, soft sand and algae towards the beach.
“Everybody was sinking in the mud trying to hurry,” he said.
Once he escorted the last passenger down the stairs, Batten says he went back to the wheelhouse and upstairs deck to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anyone and dove into the water from the upper deck.
“The flames were getting too close for me to walk out,” he said.
Once on the beach, the chaos started, Batten recalled.
“People had been really disciplined, but now they were watching the boat fully engulfed and figuring out they’d just escaped death,” Batten says. “There was a lot of crying and shaking from the cold and fear. A couple people looked like they were going into shock.”
Authorities took all passengers to the emergency room where about 15 complained of chest pain, smoke inhalation and hypothermia. They were treated and released.