Fire at Largo boat retailer destroys two yachts

LARGO

Orthopedic surgeon Hugo Keim and his wife, Alicia, were looking forward to cruising Tampa Bay in their new 44-foot yacht today.

But Friday morning, Keim got a call that put a major kink in their weekend plans.

Brett McGill, a regional president of MarineMax boat retailer, called Keim about 7:30 a.m. He said there was a tragedy late Thursday in the boatyard on U.S. 19. The couple's brand new Meridian 441 Sedan Bridge yacht, and the 39-foot yacht they traded in, were destroyed in a fiery explosion.

"We're pretty miserable," said Keim, 77, who lives in Odessa. "We were supposed to pick up the boat Saturday."

Fire officials estimated damages at $1 million. They said the fire doesn't appear to be suspicious, and the cause may have been electrical or mechanical.

About 11 p.m. Thursday, blasts rattled the neighborhood near MarineMax.

Cari Smithson and her husband were relaxing in bed when an explosion shook the windows of their second-story waterfront condo. Their daughters ran into the bedroom screaming as flashes of orange and yellow flickered behind the window blinds.

Smithson pulled open the blinds, grabbed her phone and called 911. Her family huddled near the window as a fire engulfed a yacht in a boat slip 100 yards from their home. A second blast echoed as they watched another boat go up in flames.

MarineMax is in Largo near Belleair Road, just south of the Clearwater border. The waterway where the boats were docked links Allen's Creek to Tampa Bay.

Although Largo Fire Rescue would handle the investigation, Clearwater firefighters were first on the scene six minutes after 911 calls started coming in. They found both yachts burning side by side behind the business, said Josh Stefancic, a Largo assistant fire chief.

Nobody was there except for the firefighters, he said. "We had to force open a gate to get a truck into the rear of the business."

Crews battled the fire from a walkway near the boats. Units from Largo and Safety Harbor also responded. The blaze was under control within 40 minutes, Stefancic said.

Together both boats were valued at about $900,000. The new one was worth about $550,000, officials said. Three other boats had minor damage from radiant heat, Stefancic said.

The fire's cause is unknown. Stefancic said there was electrical power to both boats, and the fire likely started in the older boat, a 2007 Meridian.

Because of the costly damage estimate, the case was referred to the Largo Police Department and the state fire marshal for further investigation, Stefancic said. Contractors hired by MarineMax were handling the cleanup.

Largo police Lt. Mike Loux said his department planned to do a routine investigation to determine whether the fire was caused by arson or an accident.

The Coast Guard was called to deal with fuel that leaked into the water. Between the two vessels there was a potential for a spill of up to 300 gallons of diesel, said Petty Officer James Muller. A contractor set up booms to contain the fuel.

MarineMax officials didn't return calls for comment Friday.

In 1992, the Keims founded the ChairScholars Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides financial aid to low-income, physically disabled students. Since then, the charity has sent more than 760 children to college, Keim said.

The couple moved to Florida in 1995 and began boating. Keim's wife took a captain's course.

"We just returned from a 21-day trip down to Miami Beach. And we decided on the way home, 'Let's get a little bigger boat,' " said Keim, who works at Bay Pines VA Medical Center.

This was the fifth boat the couple bought from MarineMax. And they planned to cruise over to Pasadena Yacht & Country Club this morning.

Keim is disappointed, but said he's sure there was no foul play. The business was locked and there are cameras monitoring the facility at all times, he said.

McGill pledged to replace their boat and do everything he could to make things right, Keim said.

Keim's just glad no one was injured.

"Luckily it was just a couple of boats," he said. "Boats can be replaced."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155. Times staff writer Ileana Morales and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Fire at Largo boat retailer destroys two yachts 06/17/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 18, 2011 12:06am]

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