Witness accuses firefighters of making Tarpon Springs boat fire worse

4:43 PM, May 15, 2013   |    comments
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Tarpon Springs, FL -- There's new information in that massive shrimp boat fire that burned for several hours at the historic Sponge Docks in Tarpon Springs.

Businesses are worried part of the river will have to be shut down for the cleanup, and some witnesses are accusing fire officials of making matters worse - before they got better.

The Skye Marie is still listing in the water, charred. Booms have been set around the 85-foot boat to try and capture any more diesel fuel that may leak from its damaged hull.

The ship itself has been called a total loss, but critics say it didn't have to be that way.

"For three hours I watched them, screaming at them, 'Stop!'" said Sean O'Keefe.

O'Keefe says he was so livid they had to load him into the back of a squad car Tuesday night. 

O'Keefe has been a boat captain since he was 17. He spent nine years with the U.S. Coast Guard, and now makes his living towing jet fuel barges. He knows about boat fires, and O'Keefe says the first crews on scene Tuesday night screwed up by throwing water on the Skye Marie, instead of foam. The water spread the diesel and flames, rather than containing them.

"You cannot put a diesel fire out with water!" he says.

Fire officials agree, but they say it may be days, perhaps weeks before they know what started the fire. On Wednesday they were still unloading diesel, but the boat remains unstable. We asked about the allegation that first responders did more harm than good.

Capt. Rick Kinney with the Tarpon Springs Fire Dept. said he could not comment specifically, but "In general, you use foam on oil fires. So initially... what was the fire initially?" He said it is the question that still needs to be answered. "I don't know, so I can't comment on that."

The Skye Marie, owned by shrimper Billy Harris, had just taken on 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel. It burned into the night.

"Could you imagine if they'd have been out in the Gulf and something like that happened?" asked Carly Caza, Harris' daughter.

Caza says her dad couldn't get insurance, because the boat was too old and made out of wood. He spent about $60,000 on it, she says, and will likely call it quits.

Caza says Harris was just rebounding from the BP oil spill, "and then something terrible like this happens."

For now, the burned-out shrimping boat has become the latest tourist attraction in Tarpon Springs, a town that thrives on visitors.

Kay Shatz almost canceled a trip from Bartow, thinking the area would be closed off, but she came anyway. Not just for the shops, but to see Harris' boat.

"Just curious," said Shatz.

It was the same for Alice Thesier from Winter Haven.

"They said it was such a big fire and they couldn't get it out," she said. So she too, was curious.

But when they try to move the Skye Marie, the Coast Guard plans to shut down the Anclote River, perhaps for days. That would likely choke off the area's other big industries: fishing, scuba, and tourism boats that need to move through the river but may be stuck in port.

"That's because they pumped it full of water and sunk it. It did not have to sink," insists O'Keefe.

Other witnesses also questioned why there was no fire boat ready to help battle this blaze, with so many boats making port here. They got a boat here eventually, but it had to come up from Clearwater.

There are still several agencies on-hand including the U.S. Coast Guard. FWC is also looking at any potential environmental issues, which so far seem contained. The concern, however, is what may happen - or leak - when they eventually try to move the boat.

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