Six rescued after tugboat catches fire, burns off Florida coast


Six mariners escaped into a life raft and were later rescued by a good Samaritan after their tugboat caught fire and burned off the Florida coast.

The 3,000-hp Thomas Dann was towing a barge when it burst into flames at about 1700 on July 22. The accident occurred in open water roughly seven miles east of Marineland, Fla., a community halfway between St. Augustine and Daytona Beach.

Jacksonville Fire and Rescue fought the fire through the night, and the Coast Guard credited the department for preventing 15,000 gallons of diesel aboard the tug from polluting local waters.

“The officer in charge wrote that the crew responded to a Coast Guard request that dealt with a burning tug east of Matanzas Inlet,” said Jacksonville Fire and Rescue spokesman Tom Francis, citing the accident report. “They found the roughly 90-foot tug Thomas Dann burning from the engine room forward.”

The tug’s diesel tanks “appeared not to be involved in the fire,” he said.

Coast Guard spokesman Luke Clayton said the incident is still under investigation, including the cause and source of the fire. He said investigators would meet with the crew and the tug’s owners to determine what happened.

Thomas Dann is a 41-year-old twin-screw tugboat owned by Dann Ocean Towing of Tampa, Fla. The company did not respond to requests for comment by phone and email.

Few details were available about the accident voyage. Clayton said the tug was traveling south towing a roughly 300-foot barge carrying construction equipment and other “items.” Its departure port and destination were not available.

The barge reportedly belongs to Express Marine of Camden, N.J. That firm also did not respond to requests for comment.

After the fire started, the crew put on life jackets and escaped into the vessel’s lifeboat. A recreational boater nearby saw the smoke, picked up the crew and carried them to shore. Nobody on the tug required medical treatment, the Coast Guard said.

Jacksonville Fire and Rescue’s 50-foot fireboat Jake M. Godbold reached the burning tug at about 2000, two hours after the Coast Guard request for help. The fireboat crew found the tug in flames and the barge still connected to the towline but not in danger of catching fire. The crew used the fireboat’s turrets and hand lines to extinguish the flames, Francis said.

Flagler County Fire and Rescue also sent a helicopter to assist with rescuing the tug’s crew, who were already safely aboard the good Samaritan vessel.

Clayton praised Jacksonville firefighters for extinguishing the flames while keeping the tug afloat, preventing its fuel from escaping.
“They extinguished the fire, and fortunately the boat didn’t sink, because you’re flooding the boat with water to extinguish the fire, so you have to balance that efficiently to avoid flooding and capsizing the vessel,” he said.

The Coast Guard established a safety zone while it monitored firefighting efforts and the drifting tug and barge. Fire crews departed at 1500 on July 23 while the Coast Guard remained at the scene awaiting salvage tugs.

Mobro Marine’s tug El Puma Grande towed Thomas Dann to a facility in Green Cove Springs, Fla., on the St. Johns River. Smith Maritime’s tug Elsbeth III towed the barge to Canaveral, Fla.

By Professional Mariner Staff