A report from the National Transportation Safety Board says the Jackson County (Alabama) Park Marina boat dock's "limited fire safety practices" contributed to the tragic Jan. 27 fire that trapped 17 people on Dock B, seriously injuring one and killing eight, four among them children ages 7 to 16.
When Dock B was built in 2003, Alabama's current fire code on marinas hadn't been adopted yet, NTSB officials state in the report. The cause of the fire was never discovered because the inferno consumed everything, but it was ruled accidental.
"At the time of the fire, Alabama's fire codes for covered docks and marinas were not applicable to Dock B, which had been constructed prior to their adoption," the report states.
That left room for disaster to strike.
About a half-hour after midnight on Jan. 27, a fire broke out aboard the 43-foot liveaboard houseboat, Dixie Delight, tied up on Dock B at the landside end of the dock, according to the report. In a matter of minutes, as the Dixie Delight's owner fought the blaze and sought help from other Dock B residents, the fire cut off their escape route as it leapt to neighboring vessels and the wooden dock structure.
Less than an hour later, 35 boats were destroyed and eight lives were lost amid the flames and cold darkness of the Tennessee River.
The victims were 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. Seven perished in the fire and Roper drowned. Six of the dead were from one family, the Associated Press reported.
Although the more recent state code didn't apply, NTSB officials said the Alabama marina should have taken preventative actions, and others at the time questioned the marina's safety measures.
"[M]arinas should have measures and guidelines in place to prevent and mitigate accidents for all moored boats and their occupants," an NTSB analysis contained in the report states.
"The Jackson County Park Marina did not observe several existing safety best practices and guidelines created for and used by the marina industry. Safety practices such as annual electrical inspections, employee fire training, biannual fire drills, and the development of a pre-fire plan with the fire department can better prepare marina staff and boat owners for a vessel or dock fire," the report states. "In addition, a safety skiff, as recommended by guidelines, can be used by marina staff or first responders to assist in an emergency."
Jackson County Commission Chairman Tim Guffey couldn't be reached Friday for comment. The park and marina facility, which have undergone several improvements in recent years, is county-owned but protected by the fire department in Scottsboro.
Scottsboro Fire Chief Gene Necklaus reviewed the NTSB report and on Friday said he found no surprises. Findings matched up with original findings by state and local officials, he said.
"It's worth noting that the report mentions a couple of things several times including the codes that were applicable," Necklaus said, referring to the codes that went into effect after Dock B was built.
"Codes are not retroactive and sometimes maybe they should be," he said, "but there's just not a great deal of support for making codes retroactive when they're adopted at the government level because it puts a lot of people behind an eight ball, so to speak, with their buildings or their facilities.
But the report is a foundation for improvements, he said.
"We've tried to take that information [from the report] and improve what we're doing," he said.
Necklaus said the NTSB's mention of a safety skiff was something that in his experience is not usually seen at recreational marinas, but that doesn't mean it's not a good idea.
"We did acquire a boat," he said, "we participated several times in U.S. Coast Guard training in Chattanooga and in Nashville."
The new boat was just delivered to the department and training for its operation is underway now, Necklaus said. Firefighters who will man the boat have to be trained on how to fight fires from the water, he said.
Scottsboro fire officials will participate in Coast Guard training in Morgan County, Alabama, in the coming week and will work with officials in Guntersville who have had a water-based operation for a while, Necklaus said.
"What we can take away from that is to get better at what we're doing, and hopefully we can prevent it from happening sometime in the future," he said.
Marina accident report of fire at Jackson County Park MarinaView
AWAKENED TO A NIGHTMARE
A half-hour or so after midnight on Jan. 27, marina residents awoke to a blazing nightmare.
"I woke up to the crackling noise and I got off the boat to see what it was," Julie Jackson, a marina resident whose boat was on A dock, told the Times Free Press the day after the fire. "We were concerned about the wind because if it blew ..."
Jackson said she stood watching helplessly with her fellow residents as the tragedy unfolded.
"Eighteen minutes later," she said, "the dock was gone."
Jackson said the tragedy underlined a lesson learned.
"One thing I will say is our dock needs a rescue boat docked here at all times," she said.
The NTSB report reads like the script from a horror movie, detailing events as the fire that broke out at 12:35 a.m. CDT consumed the dock and eight lives in a matter of minutes.
The Dixie Delight's owner, who has not been publicly identified, was asleep on board when he was "awakened by a 'popping' sound, and discovered the interior of his vessel filled with smoke. Unable to locate the source of the smoke, he opened the entry door to allow some smoke to clear and exited the vessel onto the dock," the report states.
Dixie Delight's owner notified another resident boat owner across the dock and then returned to find flames coming from the forward portion of the interior bulkhead inside a closet, the report states. He emptied a fire extinguisher into the flames and then retrieved another one from the neighbor he awakened, emptying it as that neighbor and his dog made their way to safety.
Three minutes after the fire began, a call was made to 911 and emergency responders headed for the marina. Meanwhile, Dixie Delight's owner and another houseboat owner unsuccessfully tried to untie mooring ropes holding the burning vessel to Dock B, but the growing fire prevented them from freeing it.
The fire then spread rapidly from the Dixie Delight in the first slip to neighboring boats and the wooden dock, blocking the other residents' way to shore.
"The remaining 17 occupants of the boats at Dock B gathered at the end of the dock away from the fire," the report states, noting that only some of the 35 boats moored there were occupied at the time.
"As the fire continued to spread along the dock and its vessels, the people on the dock attempted to find an alternate means of escape. Several people considered attempting to fight the fire with portable fire extinguishers located on the dock, but were quickly deterred. One individual stated that 'the fire was so hot, so massive that I knew the fire extinguisher wouldn't do a thing,'" the report states.
Marina Fire Safety
The close proximity of vessels in marinas can cause fires to spread quickly, preventing evacuation. Marina owners should assess their own operations, consult relevant fire safety guidance, and review fire plans in concert with local fire departments. Marina boat owners should familiarize themselves with their marina’s fire plan and review their vessels’ potential fire hazards and firefighting equipment.
Source: National Transportation Safety Board Marine Accident Brief on the fire at Jackson County Park Marina
One of the 17 trapped on Dock B was able to make it to shore in a kayak, while the 16 remaining untied two boats near the outer end of the dock to attempt an escape.
The fire kept growing as 12 people boarded an unoccupied cabin cruiser-style boat and pushed it away from the dock and the last four people boarded a similar vessel and pushed it away, too.
"The evacuees were unable to get either boat's engine running to safely navigate away from the fire and resorted to paddling the boats with folding chairs and wash brushes," the report states.
When Scottsboro police got to the marina at 12:45 a.m. CST, they told dispatchers the "whole dock was on fire," and a Scottsboro fire engine got to the scene four minutes later, along with deputies from the Jackson County Sheriff's Office who began searching the other docks for a boat to use for rescue.
There were none, and the two vessels with the 16 people aboard who were trying to escape were making no headway. The moments stretched into long minutes as the inferno swelled.
"As the fire fully engulfed the dock, the two boats were drawn back toward the end of Dock B, in what some survivors referred to as a fire-induced draft or vortex," the reports states.
At 1:09 a.m. CST, an eyewitness photographed the two vessels drifting just feet from the end of the blazing Dock B as the burning boats' mooring lines burned through and they drifted away from the dock, one of them colliding with one of the evacuee boats, quickly catching it on fire and forcing the four aboard to jump into the 41-degree water.
One person from the other cabin cruiser with 12 adults and children aboard jumped into the water to try to fend off a burning vessel.
In the next few moments, onlookers watched an unspeakable tragedy unfold.
"Many of the remaining 11 people on the boat, some small children, retreated to the cabin of the vessel," the report states. "Shortly after, a burning vessel collided with the cabin cruiser and, according to one survivor, 'immediately' caught the vessel on fire," the report states.
Four of the 11 aboard jumped into the water while the seven who remained in the cabin — five children, their mother and another woman — were trapped.
All seven perished in the flames.
It had been less than an hour since the Dixie Delight began to burn.
The NTSB said some houseboats at the Jackson County Park marina were occupied year-round as primary homes and others were used as second homes or vacation destinations. The dock at each slip and decks of houseboats had plastic chairs and tables, rugs, propane grills and other potentially combustible materials, the safety board noted.
The board also noted that a number of the vessels there were inoperable, some of them being moored at the dock for long periods, including the Dixie Delight, which marina management told investigators had been at the marina for 10 years.
"Both the owner of the vessel at the time of the accident and the previous owner told investigators that they had never operated the vessel's engines and that the vessel had not left slip #36 during their ownership," the report states.
The NTSB said in the report that the Jackson County Park and Marina had been inspected by the Scottsboro Fire Department twice, once in April 2012 and once in 2016. The 2012 inspection had no violations while the 2016 inspection cited a presence of a charcoal grill and a gasoline container on the docks.
State code did not require these inspections, and they were completed by the local fire department as a courtesy, the report states.
Alabama's current fire code regarding marinas includes requirements for annual electrical inspections, marina employee fire response training, biannual fire drills and the designation of a fire department liaison who would be responsible for submitting a "pre-fire plan" to the local fire department and the authority responsible for enforcing the code, according to the NTSB. The board noted again that because the dock was built 17 years ago, these safety measures were not required.
OTHER MARINA AND BOAT FIRES
Folks in the Chattanooga region have seen other marinas burn and some of those incident also claimed lives, including two deaths three years ago in Scottsboro on Guntersville Lake, about 5 miles downriver from Jackson County Park.
Two people died in May 2017 when a fire started in a houseboat docked at Goose Pond Colony's marina in Scottsboro, according to Times Free Press archives. 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.
A January 2018 boat fire at Island Cove Marina in Chattanooga didn't catch the rest of the dock on fire thanks to an alert marina resident who spotted it in time to cut it loose so it could float out into the slough, 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 but 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. But, 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 email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.