SCOTTSBORO, Ala. (AP) — The fire chief in Scottsboro, Alabama says at least eight people were killed in an explosive fire that consumed at least 35 vessels along the Tennessee River.
Scottsboro Fire Chief Gene Necklaus said all eight people known to be missing were confirmed dead, and “that number could go up, because we don’t know how many were on boats” that sank.
At least seven people were sent to hospitals suffering from exposure to the frigid water or the flames. The fire quickly consumed the dock as people were sleeping, cutting off their escape routes and raining debris.
Necklaus said about 35 boats were destroyed, some of them sinking at the dock and others floating away before going under. He said divers need to locate each one and search them individually to be sure.
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.
“We woke up hearing screams and popping noises,” Mandy Durham, who was with her boyfriend in a nearby boat, told The Associated Press. “When we woke up, we could see red through the window.”
“Within 15 to 20 minutes, the whole dock was in flames,” she added. “All these boats have propane tanks and gas tanks, and that’s a lot of fire.”
The blaze destroyed the B dock, about 50 yards (46 meters) from the A dock where the boat of Durham’s boyfriend was moored.
“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.”
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.
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.
“The damage from the dock has fallen on top of the boats, and some of the boats have drifted off,” Harnen said. The aluminum roof and wood structure was destroyed, as were about three dozen boats.
Hours after sunrise, smoke was still rising from the remains of a wooden dock, and pieces of metal that once formed the roof were partially submerged. Police and fire boats with flashing lights were positioned near the charred remains, and a yellow floating boom was being deployed around the marina to contain spilled fuel.
Most of the boats that were destroyed had people living on them permanently, but some mainly spent weekends on them, Durham 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.
“Everybody is just hoping to find the ones they knew on that dock. There were families there. It’s devastating,” Durham said.
Associated Press Writer Jeff Martin in Atlanta contributed to this story.