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Friday, Apr 27, 2018
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Tarpon Springs boat fire threatened landmark sponge docks

TARPON SPRINGS - Cleanup and salvage crews got to work and a fire marshal began investigating Wednesday after firefighters extinguished a three-alarm fire that destroyed a shrimp boat and threatened the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks.
The blaze started about 7:45 p.m. Tuesday on an 80-foot shrimp boat called the Skye Marie, which was docked at 1000 Dodecanese Blvd., in an industrial area just beyond the collection of shops in the city's main tourist area.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and a private contractor, SWS Environmental Services, are dealing with possible environmental impacts from the fire, which dumped thousands of gallons of diesel into the Anclote River.
SWS Environmental Services determined much of the leaked diesel fuel burned off in the water, said U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Michael De Nyse.
About 1,000 gallons remained in the river Wednesday, near the Skye Marie, De Nyse said. Crews put a circle of booms around the boat to contain the sheen while they essentially sucked the fuel out of the water and a crane righted the ship, which sank during the fire, he said.
The boat's sinking is likely to complicate the investigation into what caused the fire.
The Skye Marie was in the middle of three boats tied together, said Donald Sayre, deputy fire chief for Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue. Firefighters freed one of those boats, but the Skye Marie remained tethered to the other one.
By the time firefighters arrived, the fire was raging.
No matter how much foam firefighters sprayed on the Skye Marie, the fire wouldn't go out, and firefighters fought the blaze through the night.
“Everything we tried just wasn't getting it,” he said.
A large amount of diesel – about 6,000 gallons – aboard the Skye Marie fueled the fire.
Boat owner Billy Harris loaded it with 5,000 gallons about $18,000 worth of diesel on Monday. He returned Sunday after three weeks at sea and had planned on leaving for another extended trip today, his wife Sue said Tuesday night.
Harris said he said he worked on the boat from 2 to 5 p.m. Tuesday. It had no power, no generator and no engine running, he said. He and his family watched firefighters battle the blaze into the night.
“All I could say [is] it had to be an act of God,” Harris said.
“I've been here a long time. Other than the 'No Name Storm,' this is probably one of the worse fires that I've seen in Tarpon Springs.”
The Harrises say they have no idea how the fire started.
Eventually, the Skye Marie started rolling and sinking, spilling burning diesel into the river.
Firefighters then found themselves fighting pools of flaming fuel floating toward other areas of the dock, but they quickly put out those spot fires, which didn't cause significant damage, Sayre said.
“It got very interesting very quickly when that happened,” he said.
The outermost boat firefighters freed sustained no damage, according to the city. Investigators are still assessing how much damage the other boat connected to the Skye Marie sustained, but it was still buoyant Wednesday, Sayre said. No one was hurt in the fire.
The river remained open for boat traffic Wednesday, and Sponge Docks shops were open, too. While the shrimp-boat fire didn't affect other businesses, it did stir concerns of the damage it could have done in a town whose economy depends so extensively on the narrow waterway that runs through it.
The Sponge Docks and the charter fishing and boat tours that leave from them draw thousands of visitors each year as the main attraction for the town's $20-million tourism industry.
Sponge diving and commercial fishing operations also remain important aspects of Tarpon Springs' economy.
About 50 boats were docked along the river near the fire, tug boat captain Sean O'Keefe said.
“There's not a lot of space for a lot of these boats,” he said. “They have to stack up on top of each other when they tie up.”
Boats line the banks of the Anclote River, but docking space has become limited over the years as people have bought up riverfront tracts to build private homes, O'Keefe said.
Joe Reis, Billy Harris' stepson, said he's concerned about the how the fire could affect the environment and local boat owners, as well as his family.
“You also have to think about everybody else's livelihood on the river,” Reis said. “You have diesel fuel spilling in the river that is burning. That could burn a number of boats that are not theirs. That would basically fall on their shoulders to repair this.”

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Tribune photographer Chris Urso contributed to this report.

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