Boaters leaped into the water to escape an explosive fire that consumed at least 35 vessels docked along the Tennessee River early Monday. Authorities said there were fatalities as seven people were sent to hospitals and seven others were initially reported missing.
The blaze was reported shortly after midnight as people living in the boats were sleeping, and consumed the wooden dock and an aluminum roof that covered many of the vessels, cutting off escape routes and raining debris into the water.
“There were numerous people rescued from the water who had escaped by going into the water,” Jackson County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Rocky Harnen told The Associated Press shortly after dawn. “We’re trying to get divers down here to search for possible victims in the water.”
The fire destroyed the B dock, about 50 yards (46 meters) from the A dock where the boat of Mandy Durham and her boyfriend is moored.
“We woke up hearing screams and popping noises,” Durham said. “When we woke up, we could see red through the window.”
“Within 15 to 20 minutes, the whole dock was in flames,” she said. “All these boats have propane tanks and gas tanks, and that’s a lot of fire.”
People were jumping onto a boat at the end of the dock because fire had consumed the middle portion and that was their only escape. But then the flames spread to that boat, leaving water as their only way out, Durham said.
“Water was the only place they had to go,” Durham said. “Its just extremely sad. It’s horrible.”
Harnen said “we have some confirmed fatalities, but we don’t have an exact number yet.” He added that several of those hospitalized suffered from being in the water, and some were burned.
Scottsboro Fire Chief Gene Necklaus said earlier that seven people were hospitalized and seven others were missing as the fire destroyed at least 35 boats docked in Jackson County Park.
Harnen said officials are trying to account for about seven people who had places on the dock.
“They had slips here,” Harnen. “That doesn’t mean they’re in the water and it doesn’t mean they’re dead. We’re making attempts to find them.”
It’s been a challenge for rescuers to reach the victims, Harnen said: “The damage from the dock has fallen on top of the boats, and some of the boats have drifted off,” he said. The aluminum roof and wood structure was destroyed, as were about three dozen boats. Crews also were using booms in an attempt to contain fuel in the water, he said.
Most of the boats on the dock that burned lived on their boats permanently, but some mainly spent weekends on them, Durham said.
Speaking with the AP shortly after dawn, Durham said there were rescue boats on the water. “Everybody is just hoping to find the ones they knew on that dock. There were families there. It’s devastating,” she said.
The park on the Tennessee River includes a boat ramp, a dock and a restaurant, and offers boat rentals, according to Jackson County’s government website.