Excursion boat with 106 aboard evacuated after fire off Norfolk

(PORTSMOUTH, Va.) — A unified command was established Tuesday evening in response to the fire aboard the excursion boat Spirit of Norfolk and continued with firefighting and salvage operations Wednesday.

Spirit of Norfolk caught fire at about noon Tuesday near Naval Station Norfolk. Tugboats pushed the vessel to a mooring at the naval station to continue firefighting efforts and keep the waterway clear for traffic. The 106 people aboard, which includes passengers and crewmembers, were safely evacuated.

Naval Station Norfolk photo

Crews were continuing with measures Wednesday to extinguish the fire. Due to ongoing firefighting operations, the vessel is considered too unstable for crews to enter, but exterior firefighting measures continued. Based on the instability, salvage contractors are developing a plan to safely enter the vessel.

Crews put a dewatering pump aboard the vessel Wednesday evening to begin removing the water from inside Spirit of Norfolk from the firefighting efforts. The dewatering efforts were anticipated to continue overnight. The water was being pumped into tanks, but a barge was scheduled to arrive Thursday to increase the storage capacity for the water. All contaminated water is being handled in accordance with environmental standards.

There is no pollution at this time, but the area is being continuously monitored.

The cause of the fire is currently under investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board.

The unified command consists of the U.S. Coast Guard, Naval Station Norfolk, City Cruises, and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management/Department of Environmental Quality. The city of Norfolk, Port of Virginia, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are supporting the unified command.

Naval Station Norfolk Fire Chief Tony Sickell said personnel are still investigating the cause of the fire, but believe it started in the engine room.

During a news conference at Naval Station Norfolk, Sickell said putting out the fire was proving to be difficult.

“It’s very deep-seated, very complex and very difficult to extinguish,” he said.

“Vessel fires are extremely complicated, we cannot continue to just put water on the vessel or we risk … either capsizing the vessel or sinking,” said Capt. Jennifer Stockwell, deputy commander, Coast Guard Sector Virginia.

— U.S. Coast Guard and news reports

By Rich Miller