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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ Many boats are docked in berths at the Chickamauga Harbor Marina, just east of the Chickamauga Dam on January 31, 2020.

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Boat dock safety regulations questioned

A deadly fire that killed eight people, including several members of one family, last week in Scottsboro, Alabama, has put renewed attention on regulations around marina safety.

The inferno broke out in the early morning hours of Jan. 27 at Jackson County Park Marina. Among the dead were four children ages 7 to 16. About two dozen people were trapped on the far side of the fire, with the only escape being the cold water or to flee in a boat.

The victims have been identified as Yancey Roper, 54; Grace Annette Watson Miles, 40; Amanda Garrard Foster, 38; Dezli Nicole Miles, 7; Kesston Damien Miles, 9; Traydon Dominic Miles, 10; Bryli Long, 16; and Christopher Zane Long, 19.

Authorities say the fire, which also damaged or destroyed about 35 boats, began near two boats in the first two slips on the land side of the marina's B dock.

THE VICTIMS

Grace Annette Watson Miles, 40

Dezli Nicole Miles, 7

Kesston Damien Miles, 9

Traydon Dominic Miles, 10

Bryli Long, 16

Christopher Zane Long, 19

Yancey Roper, 54

Amanda Garrard Foster, 38

 

 

LACK OF REGULATION

By Thursday, five vessels had been recovered, and the recovery work could continue for days or weeks, according to the Associated Press.

The state Fire Marshal's Office is continuing its investigation. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is assisting.

Alabama Law Enforcement Agency's Marine Patrol spokeswoman Robyn Bryan said Thursday she was unaware of any "problems" being found at the marina in Scottsboro.

Scottsboro Fire Department inspection reports from 2012 and 2016 didn't cite any structural problems with the dock that burned, according to the AP. The reports obtained by AP said the docks were clean, well-kept and had fire extinguishers, but also noted the presence of items including gasoline containers and cooking grills.

Jackson County Commission Chairman Tim Guffey told Alabama media last week the marina had met all code requirements. Guffey didn't return an email requesting further comment.

But former U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Chattanooga Division Capt. Bill Laudeman says there's not enough regulation of marinas, and that can make them ripe for disaster.

Alabama law doesn't provide any regulations beyond what is required of the boats that dock at one. But five years ago, Tennessee launched the Noah Dean and Nate Act, which requires marinas to have an inspection every five years. The results are posted on the agency's website.

Like Alabama, the U.S. Coast Guard doesn't regulate marinas, either, Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer Travis Magee said Thursday in an email.

The agency's oversight of boats ends at the dock whether they're being used as homes or not.

Fire officials in Chattanooga say city inspections end at the boat dock, as well.

"[T]he Chattanooga Fire Department inspects buildings on land only. We do not inspect boats or slips," Chattanooga Fire Department spokeswoman Lindsey Rogers said.

The Association of Marina Industries has a membership of roughly 850 marinas across the U.S. An association spokesman said the association believes, nationally, there are around 11,000 marinas and about a third of those — more than 3,600 — are inland marinas.

Marinas are regulated under the "NFPA 303" fire protection standard, but that standard might not be required within the state or local jurisdiction because it possibly lacks legal authority, according to association legislative coordinator Eric Kretsch.

 

MARINA FIRE TRAINING

Some marina fire-related training is coming soon to Chattanooga, officials said.

At the end of February, the Chattanooga Fire Department will be hosting a “Marine Firefighting Workshop” put on the Coast Guard and Marathon Petroleum, according to Chattanooga Fire Department spokeswoman Lindsey Rogers.

“It will focus on large marine fire incidents on the Tennessee River, in terms of resource management,” she said, noting the training plans were unrelated to Monday’s tragic fire. “This has been in the works for months in an effort to be proactive and ensure a well-coordinated response.”

Rogers said Chattanooga Fire Chief Phil Hyman commends “the local, state and federal responders who have been working tirelessly at the scene of the marina tragedy in Jackson County this week,” Rogers said. “We hope everyone impacted knows that their neighbors in Tennessee are sending condolences and well wishes as they cope with loss and begin to recover from the fire.”

 

"It comes down to education. Marinas need to know the code that needs enforcing," he said. "The ultimate goal is to make sure accidents like this don't happen."

Ideally, every marina should have a watchman, plenty of fire fighting and escape equipment, fire/smoke alarm systems, a service boat to pull out boats and residents and the like, but those are expensive propositions for marina and boat owners when there are no legal requirements driving them to take those steps, said Laudeman, who spent 12 years in the Coast Guard Auxiliary, much of his time spent inspecting boats.

Laudeman, an 87-year-old who also worked in private life as a inspector for insurance companies, said Tennessee's Noah Dean and Nate Act "was a step in the right direction," but "there's just so much to be covered and so much to be done."

He said while there are Coast Guard requirements that apply to boats, some boats moored at docks as residences might not have been inspected in a long time.

"A marina fire is an interesting fire because you have an opportunity to stop the fire by isolating it, if it's possible to isolate it," Laudeman said. "You cut the boat that's on fire loose and push it out into the water and let it burn. At least it doesn't burn up the boats on either side of it."

The marina at Jackson County Park has a slip renter policy that doesn't specifically discuss fire-related safety issues beyond the requirement that slip renters have "[n]o open flame grills or cookers on the marina docks. They must be kept on boats."

Renters are also required to carry $300,000 in liability insurance, the policy states.

 

OTHER MARINA AND BOAT FIRES

There have been other marina fires in the Chattanooga region and some also claimed lives, including two deaths almost three years ago in Scottsboro on Guntersville Lake, about 5 miles downriver from the one at Jackson County Park.

Times Free Press archives show two people died in May 2017 when a fire started in a houseboat docked at Goose Pond Colony's marina in Scottsboro. Firefighters arrived in time to contain the blaze to the interior of the vessel, but the couple who lived there with their dog perished in the fire. The cause of the deaths was smoke inhalation.

In January 2018 in Hamilton County, a boat at Island Cove Marina in Chattanooga caught fire and an alert marina resident spotted it in time to cut it loose so it could float out into the slough to keep the rest of the dock from catching fire, archives show. No one was injured.

At the Harrison Bay State Park Marina on Chickamauga Lake in April 2013, two boats were released from F dock to avoid spreading the fire to other vessels, according to archives. Both boats were destroyed. There were no injuries.

Another fire at the same marina in July 2010 left a woman with first- and second-degree burns when she and her husband finished fueling up their boat and an explosion caused a flash fire.

A house boat fire in December 2009 ended up spreading to three other boats at Browns Ferry Marina in Chattanooga when the marina manager spotted the fire and freed the boat from the dock in an attempt to prevent the spread of fire where the boat was docked. However, the boat then drifted across the marina to another trio of boats that caught fire, archives show. No one was injured.

An explosion and fire back in 2005 at the Lake Ocoee Inn and Marina in Polk County, Tennessee, destroyed 15 to 20 boats and left one man with burn injuries. Burning boats floated to shore and set the woods on fire, as well, archives show.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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