INFERNO – Fire broke out on a boat moored at Shelter Bay Marina at about 4:20 p.m. Friday afternoon and quickly spread from boat to boat tied to the same dock. Firefighters battled the blaze into the evening hours, and crews have been working to contain and clean the environmental threats all week. –ShelterBayPhotography.com
HEARTBREAKER – What’s left of a cruiser that burned and sank was hauled from the depths at Shelter Bay Marina on Saturday and placed on a barge to be taken away. A fire that swept along the dock Friday afternoon took seven boats to the bottom and ruined eight more before it was stopped. In the aftermath, clean-up crews and fire investigators have been working for days. –Photo by Don Coyote
Flames and pillows of black smoke rose over Shelter Bay Marina Friday as a major fire quickly swept through J Dock.
Seven boats sank and several more were severely damaged Friday, when a fire swept through J Dock in Shelter Bay Marina. The blaze started around 4:20 p.m. Residents of Shelter Bay heard a house-shaking boom, and those with a view of the marina saw the first boat engulfed in flame. Then residents, including some whose boats were on fire, watched helplessly, standing in the biting cold, as the blaze ripped through the boats until the flames were finally extinguished at about 7:45 p.m. No one was injured, but some people were heartbroken. When the fire broke out, several people dialed 911, including Barbara Stockwell of Shoshone Drive, whose home is across the street from J Dock. Rich, Barbara’s husband, along with Rob Hayes, Bob Conley and Pat McGarry raced to the dock to move as many boats as they could away from the spreading fire. Sadly, McGarry was unable to salvage his own boat, “Footprints-in-the-Sand.” He and his wife stood by as flames consumed their boat and their irreplaceable treasures, including sailing trophies and photographs, burned and sank to the bottom. “It’s been very hard, McGarry said. “We loved that boat so much, have had many wonderfully fun times on her and have worked for seven years upgrading her throughout. Just an hour before the fire broke out, Patrick had just finished installing new wood blinds in the interior. “Jury is still out on how we will end up financially after our insurance comes through,” he said, but “we both agree that we do want to get another boat.” When the fire first started, Hayes, McGarry, Stockwell and Conley put a skiff in the water to get to the dock to rescue a man who was trying to release his own boat. They were able to cut him loose, so he could get his boat to safety and then managed to pull five boats out of harm’s way before the blaze was so intense they had to stop. Every boat that burned was made of fiberglass and carried diesel fuel — an extremely volatile combination. Firefighters from Fire District 13, La Conner, Guemes, Mt. Erie, Bayview and Anacortes responded within 12 minutes, according to Chief Roy Horn of Fire District 13. Emergency responders from Skagit County Emergency Management, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Washington State Department of Ecology, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and divers from Northwest Diving were also on scene. The intense heat, the explosion of propane tanks and the popping of ammunition made it impossible for firefighters to get close to the blaze. With no fire hydrants within easy reach, the tankers drove to the Shelter Bay clubhouse, several blocks away, to refill their tanks, while other tankers stepped up to maintain a steady stream on the volatile blaze. Also, three boats equipped with fire monitors operated from the water. The fire-fighting boats were owned by Swinomish, La Conner Fire Department and Skagit County Sheriff’s Office. Skagit County Deputy Fire Marshall Kevin Noyes said the full extent of the financial and environmental costs are unknown. But of the sunken vessels, he said, “The seven boats were worth an estimated $1 million.” The Department of Ecology and the Coast Guard have been working since Friday on the cleanup and salvage work, with operations centered at a command post set up in the Shelter Bay clubhouse. By midnight Friday, the last boom had been placed around the marina to stop the spread of diesel and other pollutants. The boom had been provided by the Department of Ecology in 2007 and was located nearby in the event of just such a spill, according to Laura Hayes, spill responder with the Department of Ecology. A skimmer was not effective in cleaning up the mess due to chunks of debris in the water, according to Ecology. Instead, absorbent towels, called diapers, and good, old elbow grease were used, as several oil spill cleanup personnel worked day and night to stop the spread and contain the gunk. Meanwhile, the stench of burning fiberglass and noxious fumes permeated the air. According to authorities, as much as 2,400 gallons of diesel was onboard the boats at the time of the blaze. Officials say it’s common for boaters to fill their tanks in the winter so as not to leave an air gap, thereby creating more fuel for the fire. How much fuel burned and how much spilled into the marina is still unknown. Bubbles indicated leaking diesel from one boat, severely damaged, but not sunk. A diver said he could see diesel spilling out of a fuel tank while in the deep, murky water, as he placed straps around a boat’s hull so it could be lifted by a crane. Swinomish authorities have walked the surrounding areas and cruised the channel. So far no evidence of major oil has been found, according to Scott Andrews, Environmental Management coordinator with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. “We did not see anything, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any,” Andrews said. “On Saturday there was a little sheen, but it was not significant. Pretty small considering what’s taken place. Luck and fast response saved us. Tide was in-coming, which gave first responders time to get the initial boom in by 6:30 p.m.” He said the second and third tier booms were in by midnight. After being hauled from the water by a crane, the burned vessels and ruined dock will be placed on a barge and taken to Anacortes. There, the wreckage will be inspected for insurance claims as well as trying to figure the fire’s cause, according to Sergeant George Smith of the Swinomish Police. The Skagit County Fire Department and the Swinomish Police are investigating the cause. Saturday morning a light snowfall was unable to hide the hideous destruction from the night before. Two boats, the Tanker and Indecent Seas had been pulled from the water by Culbertson Marine of Anacortes and Northwest Diving and Marine; a third boat was pulled late Sunday and more by Monday afternoon.
Divers, who must be specially certified to dive into waters where there are chemical hazards or biohazards, go into the water one at a time. To get each boat out, two straps are slipped under the hull and then attached to a crane that lifts it. In the murky water, with diesel spilling from the ruptured tank, the diver must feel his way around in the dark. One diver said one boat had sunk on top of another boat and the handrails were a hazard to his mobility and equipment. It took several hours to lift each boat — due to required inspections, they had to be carefully moved, so as not to damage evidence. By Sunday morning a light film had spread across the marina lapping up against the other boats in the 325-slip marina. Washing the boats will be a priority of the Department of Ecology, according to Hayes, and efforts to start that are underway as part of the whole clean-up operation.