The Anclote River turned into a lake of fire late Tuesday night after a stubborn blaze aboard a shrimp boat spread into the fuel-covered water, dashed about 50 yards to the other shore and ignited a dock.
Crews that had been battling the boat fire summoned dozens of other engines from across the region to help ensure that other boats and structures on the Sponge Docks didn't catch fire.
Fire officials didn't report any injuries, but at least one observer wasn't sure early this morning that all was safe.
"I'm going to stay up for a while because who knows what's going to happen," said Bill Gresko, 53, a sponge diver who watched the fire develop during the night from his boat. "There are a few boats that appear to be threatened."
Fire crews were summoned to 1000 Roosevelt Blvd. at 7:40 p.m., where they encountered a fire aboard the shrimp boat, the Skye Marie. The vessel was docked near the fuel docks, where thousands of gallons of fuel are stored, and sat very close to two other boats.
The fire was stubborn and burned for about three hours, enveloping the sponge docks in heavy smoke. At least one business closed. Onlookers crowded into the area with smart phones and cameras.
The boat began to sink about 10:30 p.m., sending angry orange flame up to 40 feet in the air.
Gresko, in his boat about 250 feet east of the Skye Marie, then saw 5-foot-high flames sprint across the river and ignite a dock on the opposite shore.
"It was almost in an instant," said Gresko, who has worked as a sponge diver for 30 years and had never seen anything like it. "For … almost half an hour the river was on fire."
It occurred to Gresko that the entire sponge docks — and the more than 50 boats docked there — might be threatened.
"If that fuel gets on top of the river and is not contained, it could engulf the whole river," he said.
The docks are a centerpiece of Tarpon Springs' historic sponge industry, which was firmly established by 1890 as one of the community's most important industries. Over the next several years, Greek divers were brought to Tarpon Springs, where they became well known for their rubberized diving suits and helmets. By 1905, more than 500 divers were working out of Tarpon. Soon, restaurants and gift shops followed. The docks have been a central part of Tarpon ever since and are considered one of Tampa Bay's historic treasures.
Fire crews put out the dock fire and Gresko said at 12:30 a.m. that he saw no other fires start. He said the fire on the boat had settled down, but was still going.
The boat is owned by Billy Harris of Port Richey, who said he has been shrimping here since 1969. Harris said he had just put about $18,000 worth of fuel in the boat Tuesday.
He had no idea what sparked the fire.
"There was no power to it," he said. "An act of God, I guess."
Harris said he has no insurance for the boat, which is named after his granddaughter.
He wasn't sure if he would return to shrimping.
"I don't know if I'm going to be financially able," he said.
Harris thanked firefighters for battling the blaze and also said: "I want to apologize to the town of Tarpon Springs for any damage this fire caused."