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Two Recent Boat Fires in Coral Bay Show Need for Better Response at Sea

Early Tuesday afternoon, the sailboat Gisselle caught fire in Coral Bay. (Photo by Sandra Miller)

Both the V.I. Fire and Emergency Medical Services and the U.S. Coast Guard responded to two separate boat fires in Coral Bay on St. John within two days. 

No one was injured in either incident, according to a press release issued by the VIFEMS,  but the events point to the need for equipment that can be used by firefighters to respond to emergencies at sea and along the shore.

On Tuesday around 1:20 p.m., Coral Bay residents became alarmed after noticing a large plume of black smoke rise from a sailboat moored in the bay between Usher Cay and Fortsberg. 

Sandra Miller, who lives aboard a boat anchored close by, said she was below deck when Doug Weaver, a captain with Flyaway Charters, approached her boat blowing an air horn to warn her of the danger.

Sandra Miller recounts the fire that destroyed the boat next to hers. (Photo by Amy H. Roberts)

“I couldn’t smell the smoke — the wind took it towards the shore,” Miller said.

Within minutes, other members of the boating community including Dane Tarr, Justin Nesbitt, Carl Adler, Steve Norris, and Steve Hendren, came to assist and helped Miller move her boat to safety, but there was nothing they could do to put out the fire without the proper equipment.

Meanwhile, members of the Coral Bay-based Romeo Fire Company stood on the shore unable to assist without equipment to reach the boat. A Coast Guard vessel deployed from St. Thomas arrived on the scene within 35 minutes, said Miller, but since no one was aboard the burning vessel and no one was in danger, they did not attempt to put out the fire.

V.I. Marine Towing and Salvage was able to deploy hoses and pumps to douse the fire. (Photo by Sandra Miller)

“We all stood there and watched it burn for about an hour,” said Miller. Finally, V.I. Marine Towing and Salvage, a company that specializes in marine emergency response, showed up and used their pumps and hoses to douse the fire. “Later, we heard a noise and the boat just sank,” said Miller.

Gisselle, the boat that burned, had been under the care of Ashley King, but she was not the owner.  “The owner passed away years ago,” King said. “The fire was a mysterious accident as (Gisselle) has been ‘put away’ since the beginning of last hurricane season. I give thanks to everyone involved: VIFD, VIPD, STJ Rescue, U.S. Coast Guard, the Coral Bay community” and V.I. Marine Towing and Salvage, she told the Source.

The boat fire in Coral Bay as seen from the bow of the boat anchored next to it. (Photo by Sandra Miller)

Only the day before, the Romeo Company of the Virgin Islands Fire and Emergency Medical Services responded to a boat fire in the Hansen Bay Area, according to the VIFEMS press release. 

“Upon arrival at 4:07 a.m., fire crews did not detect any fire or smoke. The fire crew determined no immediate danger to the surrounding community and investigated the vessel to ensure no hidden fires or potential hazards were present. There were no reports of injuries, and all passengers and crew were safely transported to Coral Bay dock. The U.S. Coast Guard assumed command of the incident upon arrival,” the release said.

Both accidents are under investigation.

“We extend our sincere gratitude to the dedicated VIFEMS personnel, [V.I. Marine Towing and Salvage], and the U.S. Coast Guard for their swift response and collaborative efforts in responding to both incidents,” said VIFEMS Director Daryl George. “Their quick actions were instrumental in containing the fires and ensuring the safety of everyone involved.” 

“These incidents highlight the critical need for effective fire and emergency medical response on land and sea,” the press release continued. “As such, VIFEMS is in the process of acquiring firefighting vessels equipped with state-of-the-art technology and equipment to enable rapid response to fires in coastal areas.” 

“The VIFEMS encourages all boat owners and operators to regularly inspect their vessels for potential hazards, and ensure that they have working smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, and emergency plans. In the event of any emergency, call 911 for assistance and comply with the instructions of Emergency Operators and First Responders,” the press release concluded.

On St. John, cell phone users are advised to reach 911 by calling 340-776-9110.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story credited SeaTow with dousing Tuesday’s boat fire, per the V.I. Fire and Emergency Medical Services’ report on the incident. It was V.I. Marine Towing and Salvage that came to the rescue.

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