TARPON SPRINGS — The U.S. Coast Guard will continue to roll drum skimmers over the surface of the Anclote River today to soak up the diesel fuel spilled during a boat fire Tuesday night.
It took about four hours for the Coast Guard to remove more than 1,500 gallons of the fuel from the water Wednesday, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Eric Garza.
"This is unusual, and it doesn't happen very often," he said. "But when it does, the Coast Guard is quick about it."
The 85-foot shrimp boat Skye Marie caught fire while it was anchored at the Chevron fuel depot at the city's historic Sponge Docks after being filled with 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel, for a total of 6,000 gallons onboard.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Tom Ericson, 49, manager of Gulf Marine Ways, was relaxing along the docks around 7:30 p.m. Tuesday when he saw flames coming from the top of the boat's cabin.
He called 911 and watched as firefighters battled the blaze until after 1 a.m.
"It took them a long time to get the foam going," said Ericson. "Putting water on diesel fuel doesn't do much good."
Multiple agencies were involved in the firefight and aftermath, including fire departments from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, the Coast Guard, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the state Department of Environmental Protection, Homeland Security and local law enforcement.
At one point, it appeared firefighters had tamped down the blaze, but then it ballooned. Fuel spilled into the water and spread, and the flames followed it across the river's surface, igniting a dock on the north side of the Anclote.
Witnesses said it looked like the river was on fire.
From the north side of the river Wednesday, it was easy to see the extent of the damage: The whole side of the Skye Marie was gutted. The boat was listing, and part of its mast had collapsed onto the shrimp boat Carol Jean, which was anchored beside the Skye Marie on Tuesday and was left scorched by the flames.
Workers used a crane Wednesday afternoon to move the Skye Marie and free the Carol Jean.
They also placed a floating boom around the Skye Marie to contain leaks, and an environmental cleanup crew dipped white pads into the water to soak up the fuel. The pads, when they were pulled out of the river, were stained red from the fuel. The drum skimmers are more efficient at soaking up the fuel.
City Manager Mark LeCouris said any contamination will be cleaned up, but he wasn't sure who would have to pay the cost.
Wally Ericson, Tom's father, said as he and his son watched the fire worsen Tuesday night, they decided to move their own 65-foot boat, which was anchored on the north side of the river opposite the fuel dock.
But as they were preparing to untie the boat and get under way, flames from the Skye Marie ignited the fuel in the river and fire began streaming across the surface of the water toward the Ericsons' boat. With the flames only 6 feet away, Wally Ericson said they cut the tie ropes with a knife and gunned their engine to get away.
He said there have been other fires at the Sponge Docks, but none so bad. The firefighters "were doing the best they knew how," he said, but he said it took them hours to start using foam to smother the diesel fire in the ship's hull, and they instead used water, which boats are built to resist.
Joe Young, owner of the Chevron fueling station, said, "It's common sense" to use foam, not water, on a fuel fire. He said 20,000 gallons of diesel fuel is stored in underground tanks at the fueling station, along with 10,000 gallons of gasoline. At times Tuesday night, he feared the whole property would ignite, he said.
Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Don Sayre said firefighters dumped 30,000 gallons of foam onto the fire, and they acted quickly. He emphasized the boat that caught fire was initially tethered between two other boats, and firefighters managed to save all but the Skye Marie.
"You know early on from the fire academy, fuel fires need foam," he said. "It was all a part of the initial plan. This was just a very stubborn fire and difficult to get to."
It wasn't clear Wednesday how far the fuel spread up the river or what its impact on marine life in the river would be.
Scott Conger, a biologist and owner of the Tarpon Springs Aquarium, said the impact likely would be minimal, but he called the situation a "waiting game." Most of the diesel will evaporate within a few days, he predicted. Then he can go back to using the river water to fill the aquarium's tanks.
Retiree Bob Ruoff, a friend of Skye Marie owner Billy Harris of Port Richey, stopped by the Sponge Docks on Wednesday. Ruoff lamented the impact the fire would have on Harris and his ability to earn a living.
"It's just so sad," Ruoff said. "These people work so hard. They work on such a slim margin. You hate to see it happen."
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.