Fire sends sailboat to the bottom of Sarasota Bay

At about 12:38 a.m. Jan. 12 a Bradenton Beach Police Department officer was on routine patrol on Bayside Drive when he observed a boat on fire.

The boat was moored in Sarasota Bay to the south of the Historic Bridge Street Pier.

The officer contacted the U.S. Coast Guard, but according to BBPD Det. Sgt. Lenard Diaz, “by the time the Coast Guard arrived there was nothing they could do.”

Diaz said several agencies were notified of the fire, but nobody had a vessel in the area equipped with the specific type of nozzle used to extinguish boat fires on open water.

“Nobody was able to put the fire out and the boat sank,” said Diaz.

Diaz said there was a witness, but because the investigation is ongoing he did not release a name. However, he did disclose that the witness told him he saw what he thought was a candle burning as he was rowing a dinghy toward shore. The witness then decided to stop to check on the person known to stay on the boat.

“When he got there, he opened the door to the cabin and there was a backdraft effect of the air hitting what we believe may have been a lit Sterno can, which will emit fumes in an enclosed area,” said Diaz.

Video surveillance of what some people refer to as the mooring field, though it is not an official mooring field, shows a small light emitting from the boat and then a sudden ball of fire.

The witness managed to escape without injury, according to Diaz, who said the man jumped into the bay and was rescued by nearby boaters.

According to Police Chief Sam Speciale, a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office dive team responded due to initial concerns that someone had gone into the water.

The sailboat continued to be engulfed by flames and, as it burned, the fire spread to the anchor ropes, which freed the burning vessel.

It began to drift to the east and made contact with another boat, causing some exterior fire damage. Diaz said other boaters managed to separate the two vessels.

“Otherwise, I don’t think there is any doubt that both boats would have burned and sank,” he said.

Diaz said the sunken vessel is a hazard and police are attempting to contact the owner to have it removed. There is some question that the boat may have in the process of changing hands. Diaz said if money was exchanged, then it could become the new owner’s responsibility.

In the meantime, Diaz said the fire is being considered suspicious.

“It’s definitely not clear if it was intentional or an accident,” said Diaz. “But for now, the lesson is that any time you are going to have a heating device on a boat, it should be approved by the Coast Guard. Don’t use candles and certainly don’t use Sterno or you can see the result of what can happen.”

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