Schoolchildren rescued from burning tour boat off Norfolk

The vessel under tow to a Norfolk-area shipyard after the fire was out.
Spirit of Norfolk sits low in the water, above, after several days of firefighting.
Spirit of Norfolk sits low in the water, above, after several days of firefighting.

Dozens of children from a local school were among the 106 passengers and crew rescued from a tour boat that caught fire while underway off Norfolk, Va. 

The fire aboard the 167-foot Spirit of Norfolk started at about noon on June 7 while the vessel was sailing on the Elizabeth River near Naval Station Norfolk. Another tour boat, Victory Rover, came alongside the burning vessel and transferred passengers and crew one by one, according to Kelly Wirfel, a spokeswoman for Naval Station Norfolk.

The fire aboard Spirit of Norfolk likely started in the engine room.
The fire aboard Spirit of Norfolk likely started in the engine room.

Multiple tugboats assisted in the response, including vessels from McAllister Towing and Moran Towing vessels chartered to the Navy. Firefighting continued for several days after the vessel reached Pier 4 at Naval Station Norfolk. Two tour boat crewmembers who remained aboard Spirit of Norfolk got off once the vessel was dockside, Wirfel said. 

The cause of the fire, which authorities believe started in the engine room, is still under investigation. The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board are jointly investigating to determine what happened. 

Capt. Jennifer Stockwell, deputy commander of Coast Guard Sector Norfolk, praised local tugboat crews along with the mariners working on Victory Rover and Spirit of Norfolk for averting tragedy. 

“It really was due to the absolute professionalism of the mariners on the water that (passengers) got evacuated so quickly,” she told reporters two days after the fire started. 

Chip Filer, the Norfolk city manager, went further. “We really owe … the crew on the Victory Rover that day absolutely massive amounts of thanks. I don’t think there is any question they saved lives that day.” 

Spirit of Norfolk has operated in the city since the early 1990s and is a common sight around the Hampton Roads region. City Cruises, a Hornblower subsidiary that operates the vessel, expects it will be a total loss. 

There were 108 people on the boat when the fire started, including 89 schoolchildren. Unconfirmed reports indicate there was a smell of burning rubber on the three-level vessel before crew discovered the flames. It is not clear if any alarms sounded to give the crewmembers an early warning. 

Stockwell and other first responders praised the City Cruises crew and the passengers for remaining calm once the fire was discovered. Victory Rover tied up to Spirit of Norfolk to allow passengers and non-essential crew to escape. 

At least four Moran tugboats responded quickly to the emergency call, as did two McAllister Towing vessels. The tugs began firefighting in the river. Rosemary McAllister and G.M. McAllister pushed the burning boat into nearby Naval Station Norfolk after passengers and most crew departed. Victory Rover brought Spirit of Norfolk’s passengers and crew back to Town Point Park where the cruise started. No injuries were reported. 

“The vessel was transiting the Elizabeth River, which runs parallel to Naval Station Norfolk, when it caught on fire,” Wirfel said. “Naval Station Norfolk was the closest facility to pull it to in order to battle the fire.”

Multiple Moran tugs peeled away from the burning tour boat at about 1235 to respond to a potential emergency involving the 623-foot Norway-flagged bulker Spar Lyra. The ship was outbound in the Elizabeth River and had just passed Spirit of Norfolk when it began veering toward Pier 7 on the naval base, according to an account shared by Moran Towing Vice President Ken Flowers. 

The tugboats Z One, Karen Moran and Ft. Bragg helped bring the ship under control and escorted it to a nearby anchorage. Their intervention likely averted another serious casualty that would have distracted from the Spirit of Norfolk response. It isn’t clear what caused the ship go off course. 

Firefighters from Norfolk, the Navy base and other local departments assisted with firefighting after the vessel reached the Navy pier. Tugboats aimed their fire monitors toward the vessel to cool the hull. 

Authorities declared the fire extinguished on June 11.  

“Vessel fires are exceptionally challenging,” Stockwell said, adding that responders were concerned about the vessel’s portside list that developed during firefighting. “What we have to balance is the fire versus the stability of the vessel. That is the challenge of any maritime fire. We can only put so much water on the vessel until it capsizes and sinks.

“We made very conscious decisions about how much water we were going to add to that vessel to maintain stability,” she told reporters on June 9. “We are working to keep that vessel afloat. We are in a decent spot where the vessel is floating and we are actively dewatering it.”

Salvage teams pumped water into a tank barge alongside the tour boat to stabilize it. It is not clear if any fuel remained aboard or if it burned in the fire. There was no pollution or sheening seen around the vessel, which was surrounded by containment boom. 

As of press time in mid-June, authorities had not disclosed damage to Spirit of Norfolk. Photos released by the Coast Guard show the tour boat was badly burned, particularly toward the front of the vessel. Moran tugboat crews towed the ferry to Colonna’s Shipyard in Norfolk on June 12.

City Cruises is working to bring another vessel to Norfolk for the summer season, according to Scott Smith, senior vice president of maritime operations for Hornblower Group. He praised Spirit of Norfolk’s crew for reacting calmly and professionally during a serious situation. 

“For me, they reacted exactly the way we trained them. They were very professional, and they did a wonderful job,” he said. “All of the people on board are safe, and I applaud the efforts of the crew.”