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Foreshadowing of a fire

David Adlerstein
The Apalach Times
The Apalach Times

A funny thing happened last month, at the June 15 meeting of the Apalachicola Volunteer Fire Department.

The firefighters were talking about whether the department could use a fire boat, and Chief George Watkins told the story of how 46 years ago, when he was still in high school, the 72-foot Kingfisher burned in the Apalachicola River.

It had been tied up right near Apalachicola Enterprises at Scipio Creek, which ran an operation for Doxsee Food Corporation, out of Rehoboth Beach, Maryland, The Apalachicola facility bought and peeled Gulf and bay shrimp, both caught wild or shipped in from the Marifarms shrimp farming in Panama City.

“One night it caught fire in that same area,” said Watkins. “I watched them. They were running, chasing, trying to do the best they could. The new 1974 fire truck had a big cannon. They could shoot it real far but it would drain the tank.

“We talked about a fire boat and brought up the story of the Kingfisher burning in ‘74 or ’75,” he said. “The next day that happened, after we talked of getting a fire boat the Monday night before the Tuesday afternoon.”

On Tuesday, June 16, Watkins and Jimmy Moses were working on Little St. George Island when they got the page about 4:15 p.m.

“We were just leaving and we got the page and went across the bay,” he said. “It takes us about 15 minutes to cross the bay.

“We didn’t see any smoke, but about the time we got almost to the bridge it blew up and we saw black smoke,” Watkins said. “We knew it was bad.”

The 45-foot Desperado, captained by Michael Redman, was in in the process of coming up Scipio Creek from Port St. Joe when the mishap occurred.

Timothy Butler and a crew from Coastline were on a dock barge putting in pilings at J.V. Ganders so “he pulled up alongside and tried to put it out with a pump. But he had to back off,” said Watkins.

Travis Millender then took his shrimp boat and pushed the shrimp boat in the marsh across from Dockside at the Scipio Creek Marina, “He pushed it into the grass where it remained until the whole ordeal was over,” Watkins said.

“It’s burning good by then, putting out black smoke,” he said. “The whole front end was burning.”

When Watkins arrived on shore, he ordered a two-inch hose. “It was so hot we could feel the heat,” he said.

The three fire trucks assembled in the parking lot at Dockside Half Shell, and they strung together as much as 900 feet of hoses to get the job done, half of that to the nearest hydrant, and half of that to discharge the water from off the trucks.

“We held it to it at least 10 or 15 minutes with Jimmy holding up against it,” said Watkins.

Watkins, Troy Segree and Adam Joseph, who was the only one all suited up, then boarded the Tide Line, a people-hauling aluminum barge owned by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, as they sprayed foam treated water on the blaze.

“I didn’t have mine on, it was back at the station. It was so quick we didn’t have time. It took 15 or 20 mins to get some firemen to the boat,” Watkins said.

“We finally got it knocked down until we got on board. We couldn’t get to the flames where we needed to get,” Watkins said. “It was all in the engine room and down below as best as we could get. We were moving nets and ropes to have access to it.

“That went on for several hours, until we finally put it out. It was close to dark before we got done. It seemed like it went on for four hours the whole ordeal,” he said.

Watkins said the hull damage looked to be total when the firefighters left for the first time around 8 p.m. “During the night it sprung up again,” he said. “The FWC wouldn’t let us move it. We had to leave it smoldering in places, the inaccessible little spots. In the morning we got called again.”

He said some items remained salveagable but not too much.

“The engine got so hot it probably melted it down,” he said. “The shaft and rudder will be good. But that’s like saying ‘We saved the chimney and concrete steps of the house.’

“From what the captain said it might have developed an exhaust leak,” he said. “Diesel is hot when it runs, and it gets hot if it’s around wood. Most all the shrimp boat fires I’ve seen is caused by exhaust leak.”

Later in the day when the tide came in the boat sunk, and it was taken to the Mill Pond for salvage and discarding.

The 1989 boat was not insured, and was owned by Doug Pelt, from Port St. Joe.

Mark Moore, of the St. Joe Shrimp Company, who had helped Pelt with financing the $70,000 boat, said the boat was a total loss.

“We’re thinking the exhaust on the generator exhaust broke,” Moore said. “Thank God nobody got hurt and thank God it didn’t blow over to the fuel dock. It was just a streak of hard luck.

“It’s terrible, we’re heart broke but nobody got hurt so we consider ourselves fortunate,” he said. “Many many thanks to the fire department. It was a great effort by them for a bad chain of events.”

Watkins said the fire department is still thinking about getting a fire boat, but they recognize it may not be a top priority.

“We need one but there’s so much ISO has to have and we have to buy,” he said. “It (a fire boat) is liable to sit there two years. You very seldom have a fire you can’t get to.

“It would have been a quicker response, and we could have put it out and possibly saved it,” Watkins said. “It took us 20 minutes to get there as it was getting hotter and bigger.

“If you can stop it before it gets away you’ve done something,” he said. “Once it gets away it’s hard to stop. You don’t let it get away at all costs.

“We’re lucky to have a good trucked-up fire department,” Watkins said.

The top priority now is seeing whether the department’s auxiliary will be able to hold the January Oyster Cook-Off, a lucrative off-season fundraising event held over Dr. Martin Luther King holiday weekend.

“We don’t have to go out on Saturdays and try to make a thousand here, a thousand there,” Watkins said.