JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Dive crews are working to remove fuel from two shrimp boats that caught fire and sank to the bottom of the St. Johns River early Tuesday morning.
The fire broke out about 3 a.m., sending the 69-foot Triton II and the 40-foot Iris Marie up in flames. Firefighters worked for several hours, trying to control the flames and smoke coming from the vessels. The Iris Marie sank into the river well before sunrise and the Triton sank just before 8 a.m.
No injuries were reported, but Joe Floyd, the owner of the Iris Marie, said there were crew members on board when the fire erupted.
“They cranked up the generator in the engine room and the crew did that before I got here and went upstairs and were making coffee and all the sudden started smelling smoke,” Floyd said. “Something down there caught fire.”
The boats were docked at the Safe Harbor Marina near the Safe Harbor Seafood Market & Restaurant on Ocean Street. Floyd described what happened as a chain reaction, with the fire on his boat causing the second shrimping boat to catch fire.
“Well I’m, like, sick more for the other boat because it’s a lot more of an investment,” he said. “I just felt really bad because my boat caused somebody else’s boat, a nicer boat. I only had it about a week, so I just didn’t have time to make some repairs and check the wiring better and that sort of thing. But we could’ve been out at sea and (it) could’ve been a lot worse. So we thank God we weren’t."
Firefighters had mostly extinguished the flames by 6:30 a.m. but heavy smoke could still be seen.
Corey Knoff, a shrimper who used to work on the Triton, was overcome with emotion.
“I just got off that boat like two weeks ago,” Knoff said, crying. “It’s the first time I’ve seen a boat on fire period. It’s hard because that’s the first boat I ever worked on when I first started commercial fishing.”
A lot of people in the fishing community are very close. Chris Wooten, the owner of Safe Harbor Seafood, said it was devastating to watch.
“The second I saw it, I thought, ‘Oh, God, right during the holidays.’ These guys, you make hay when the sun shines, and this is the time of year, they do real well,” Wooten said. “It couldn’t have happened at a worse time as far as these guys paying their bills and feeding their families.”
Capt. Mark Vlaunn, of the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville, said Tuesday morning that the immediate concern now is the threat of pollution. The Coast Guard said later in the day that the area where the boats sank had been contained with a boom and absorbents, and there had been no reports of pollutants outside the containment area.
Throughout the day, dive teams entered the water as crews worked to get an inventory of what other contaminant products might have been on board.
As of 4:15 p.m., crews were still working to remove the fuel from both boats. Dive teams had been going into the vessels to get access to the fuel tanks. Though crews were unable to estimate how much is in each tank, based on what they owners told them, they do know the tanks were not full. The Coast Guard told News4Jax that there were no leaks.
Coast Guard will be back at Mayport at 8 a.m. Wednesday to continue removing fuel from vessels.
Once pollution has been mitigated, efforts will transition into a salvage effort at the marina. According to the Coast Guard, it will be up to the owners to decide how to salvage the vessels. There’s no timetable as to when the boats will be taken out.
Neither of the boat owners had insurance. The owner of the Iris Marie told News4Jax he wants to help the owner of the other boat however he can, and he shared a GoFundMe page that was set up to help the owner of the Triton.
The Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department said it is not sure yet what caused the fire, but it is conducting a joint investigation with the Coast Guard and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.