Fire Investigations, Marine

Yacht Fire in a Marina

21 March 2022

A husband, wife, and kids were spending the night on his parents’ 65-foot yacht moored in the corner of the marina near the dock opening. The vessel was connected to two shore power lines that plugged into a pedestal on the dock. On the port side of the vessel, there were three other vessels ranging in size from 75 to 90 foot.

The family was in bed, below deck, at the time of the fire. The husband was awakened early in the morning by a strange sound. He went to the salon deck and looked around the galley, salon, dining area, and helm station but did not see, smell, or hear anything out of the ordinary. He returned to the master stateroom bed only to be awakened again by this strange sound. He waited a little bit and then got out of bed and went up to the salon deck. Once he reached the top of the stairs, he saw smoke pushing out from the galley. He ran down the stairs and woke his wife and children and pushed them up the stairs from the bottom deck into the salon deck. 

By now the smoke was so heavy they could barely see to get to the large glass entry doors onto the rear deck. Flames were rolling over their heads as they worked to open the sliding glass doors. Both adults received burn injuries during their escape.

Once outside, they made it to the swim platform and were assisted up onto the dock by onlookers, who had already called 911 to report the fire. By the time the fire department arrived there were three yachts on fire and the fire was quickly extending to a fourth yacht. The fire department called for a second alarm bringing more firefighters, Haz-Mat Team, and specialized equipment including two fireboats. Multiple firefighting lines were placed to cut off fire extension to the remaining boats docked in the marina. As the fire extended to the fourth yacht, a salvage tow operator hooked up and pulled this yacht out of its slip to keep the fire from continuing down the line of yachts docked. This yacht was pulled out of the marina where it continued to burn until extinguished by a fireboat.

The three yachts were finally extinguished by firefighters alternating between foam and large water streams. The smoldering hulls had to be monitored and spot fires extinguished. The Department of Environmental Protection and United States Coast Guard responded to the scene to assess the situation, which included diesel fuel freely flowing into water from one of the yachts. With assistance from a salvage tow operator and salvage boat, the spill was contained with floating dams.

In the daylight, the severity of the fire was revealed. Two of the three yachts had settled to the bottom of the marina and the main decks sunk to be nearly even with the water during low tide and were mostly covered during high tide. The local, state and federal agencies held the fire scene as it was while they conducted their initial fire investigation. 

Envista in Action

Envista Forensics was retained as the private fire investigator representing one of the main parties. Once the private fire investigators representing the marina and the two most severely damaged vessels were on-site, the groups began working together to create a fire work plan. 

The Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) called a preliminary meeting of the interested parties to determine the need for protocols and work plans. There were discussions as to how the scene will be processed, who can access the investigation site, and any restrictions to be imposed by the AHJ or other agencies. A site safety plan was also completed to include environmental considerations. 

At this point, there was an understanding and agreement regarding how the investigation would progress and that the AHJ and Coast Guard would stay in control of the decision making and actions until they completed their fire investigation and ruled the incident as accidental, at which time they would turn the vessels and evidence over to the private fire investigators and their represented parties.

The decision was made between represented parties to document the fire scene, docks, electrical systems, transformers, and dock pedestals. Once this was accomplished, it was determined that divers would be needed to document the bottom of the vessels and seafloor to look for any items of potential evidentiary value. A grid system was established, and the divers entered the water to video the vessels and seafloor and tag or bring any item of potential evidentiary value to the surface. 

The Initial Investigation: Gathering Evidence

A review of three security cameras and interviews with witnesses placed the fire as originating on one of the first two vessels. The AHJ and Coast Guard determined that they wanted both vessels refloated, removed, and transported to a boatyard where they could continue their fire investigation. Once the vessels were secured and refloated by salvage crews, they were removed from the dock. The two vessels were then towed away from the marina and relocated to a boatyard where they were lifted out of the water by a yacht crane and placed on a trailer to be taken to an area of the boatyard where they could be placed on boat stands. The boat stands are used to support the port and starboard sides of a boat while the weight of the boat rested on keel blocks or keel stands. Once at the boatyard, the vessels were placed on boat stands in the same position as they were at the time of the fire. This would allow for the comparison of fire and heat effect patterns.

While waiting for the vessels to be relocated and prepared for further fire investigation, Envista’s private fire investigators began gathering information on the two sunken vessels. Security videos were recovered from the marina, which provided guidance as to where on the vessel the fire originated and how the fire progressed. Envista’s fire investigators were able to collect photos from witnesses around the marina at the time of the fire. It was determined that one of the vessels had been listed for sale, so the yacht broker was contacted to obtain the listing, which provided information on the vessel through exterior and interior photographs. The most important information gained was a listing of every item in every part of the vessel which allowed the investigators to determine the parties to be placed “on notice” for potential subrogation. 

After four days of fire investigation, the AHJ, State Fire Marshal, and Coast Guard determined that there was no evidence that the fire had been intentionally set. At that time, those parties closed their investigation and the vessels were turned over to the private fire investigation teams.

Phase Two: Fire Origin and Cause

Envista’s private fire investigators had been onsite observing the public fire investigation and by this time determined that the boat nearest the dock and walkway was the vessel of fire origin. The investigation process was then focused on the vessel where the fire originated, which was determined to be in or under the galley.

The private fire investigators began their investigative activities by searching for the vessel documents. The owner of the vessel had provided information as to where he had stored the documents and after two days of digging, the compartment where the documents had been stored was located, removed, and set out to dry. Every electrical appliance in and around the galley was determined to be suspect. The manufacturers, distributors, and many others were placed "on notice" and were requested to contact their insurance company to get fire experts to protect their interest.

A new set of dates were agreed upon and the fire investigators, marine electrical engineers, surveyors, electricians, and attorneys met at the boatyard to begin the next phase of the fire investigation. As the investigation progressed, the flybridge and large pieces of the deck were lifted off and removed using a crane. Work continued until the salon deck was open and free from the upper deck. The salon deck was systematically delayered and based on the photographs from the yacht broker listing, areas within the galley were uncovered and items of potential evidentiary value were recovered. The refrigerator, dishwasher, oven, microwave, cooktop, wine closet, and all other potential ignition sources were documented and collected. 

There were significant fire and heat effect patterns along the port side of the vessel. Since this is where the wire bundle traversed, it was determined that the entire main wire bundle be recovered for later examination. This process took multiple days to complete.

The fire investigation teams agreed on the decision that they needed to return to the marina to examine and document the electrical system for the transformers and dock pedestals. The electrical system was examined from where the power entered the property, the main transformer, and where it entered the marina main building. From there, the electrical system was documented from the breaker panels to the dock where the vessels had been moored at the time of the fire. The transformers and pedestals on the dock were also collected for examination and testing in a laboratory.

A joint evidence examination was conducted in an empty warehouse where every piece of evidence was examined, documented, and either set for more testing or set aside for storage. The items requiring more examination and testing were then transported to a large lab where electrical testing, x-rays, destructive examination, and other material testing could be performed.

The Outcome

After more than two years and months of actual investigative work, the cause of the fire was determined and the manufacturer of the product under recall accepted responsibility. In the end, based on fire patterns on the floor in the galley where a specific appliance had been positioned, Envista helped determine that the appliance was the cause of the fire. 

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About The Author
T. David Harlow
Principal Consultant
Fire and Explosion

Mr. David Harlow has personally worked or supervised more than 1500 fire and explosion investigations. His forensic experience includes investigations of fire and explosion incidents in industrial, commercial, residential structures, vehicle, boats/vessels, and marinas.

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