Five lessons from fatalities in the Jackson Pond Marina fire.

At the start of 2020, a massive fire at Jackson Pond in Ohio, a lakeside marina, led to eight fatalities. The details of the NTSB report offer insights that could prevent future deaths in the event of a serious fire developing in a UK or European marina.

An electrical fault on one of the boats resulted in a rapidly developing fire that began in the middle of the night. Within four or five minutes the fire became un-manageable. Seventeen people were trapped by heat, smoke and fire at the dock end. In the course of extempore efforts to rescue them eight drowned or perished in fire. The NTSB report summary and investigation documents are publicly available.

The semi-residential setting, marina layout and and variable condition of the houseboats and cruisers at Jackson Pond is not entirely typical of European and UK coastal marinas. Nether-the-less there are five clear learning points:

  1. FRP and wooden boats burn really well. Fire can spread between adjacent vessels easily, and blowing embers can ignite spray hoods, sails, covers and Biminis at some distance from the source of ignition.
  2. Wood and FRP boats loosed from their berths are fireships. Whether the vessel is cut free or burns through her moorings she becomes a fireship, which ignites everything in the drift path, and hazards vessels and structures downwind of her.
  3. Smoke or fire isolating berth-holders from the connecting brow to land, in the context of a rapidly developing massive fire, poses questions as to rescue capability, and to what degree this is viable amongst wind produced by fires and blowing embers.
  4. Onboard shore-power is becoming ubiquitous. Berth holders are often poorly placed to assess how well a marina is providing this utility, and marina operators are poorly placed to determine what deficits exist in onboard handling of the power.
  5. Regularly provided frontline firefighting tools may not be adequate to assist berth holders in fighting a fire. Especially in more remote coastal settings berth-holder actions may make the difference between a contained fire and a very large conflagration.

FRP and wooden boats burn really well

The fire appears to have started in the onboard shore power breaker box on a single vessel. The owner Mr X stated in interview that he:

was in his bed and heard a crackling popping noise inside his boat. Mr X stated that he got of bed and went to his electrical box located by the entrance to the boat and saw smoke. Mr X then opened the closet and saw flames. Mr X stated that he got his fire extinguisher and used it. Mr X then stated he went to neighbors’ boat Mr M to get his extinguisher when he retuned to his boat; it was fully involved.

At least one mechanism of spread was spread between boat canvas work. A survivor said: ‘It spread from the Bimini tops down. ‘So there’s no flame-retardant spray on those. They just, as soon as those embers get on there, they just started burning. And when they started dropping then the boat started on fire and it just went from one to the other’.

Speaking to investigators a survivor recalled the how rapidly the fire overwhelmed the 36 slip partially covered boat dock.

It went in 3 or 4 minutes. About it. I mean, once it hit and the fuel tanks that’s on them boats, and everybody has a propane tank, and them started blowing, it didn’t take long. And once that wood got started and all that fiberglass, it just, it just took everything.”

The flammability of yachts is well known but it bears emphasis that a single vessel fire can compromise an entire dock at a rate that berth-holders may find both disconcerting and mesmerising.

Boundary cooling and wetting down canvas work on vessels downwind from a casualty on fire may reduce the risk a serious situation in one part of a dock becoming a catastrophic multi site fire.

Fireships are greatly to be feared

Wood and FRP boats loosed from their berths are fireships. Releasing a burning vessel from her moorings, or pushing a burning vessel that has burned her lines through away from the dock may seem a straightforward thing to do. But in doing so a fireship: that greatly feared weapon of navies from the age of sail, is created.

Indeed at this very marina, a previous vessel that had gone on fire was treated in this way, only for it to become foul on another pontoon. In that instance disaster was prevented by the presence of a prototype water rescue boat. One of the marina staff said of the previous incident:

They pushed it out. They pushed it out. We thought they had it out far enough, because it was on this end of B Dock toward the shoreline. They pushed it out. They got — clipped A Dock a little bit. Done about $1000 worth of damage on that. But luckily, we had a guy that wanted to put an experimental fireboat down here. And it happened then for that experimental fireboat with a pump and stuff on it, like one of those rescue boats down there? He brought it in the day it happened. And we used it.

Why the utility of such a fire boat or work boat equipped with a high volume pump wasn’t realised after that incident raises a whole range of other questions.

Smoke or fire isolating berth-holders from the brow

Smoke or fire isolating berth-holders from the brow was the primary cause of the eight deaths in this incident. The accounts of how trapped berth holders struggled to cut cabin cruisers free only to find that they had no method of propulsion, and the wind generated by the fire was sucking them back towards the inferno are harrowing. In the case of one vessel engaged in attempting a rescue blowing embers set her alight and seven people were trapped and died as she burned to the waterline. The other victim drowned attempting to reach shore.

Two things stand out:

  • that berth-holders, even those who had PFD equipment to hand did not take it with them, nor did they have safety equipment such as torches with them.
  • some were not in the best cognitive state when aroused to this grave emergency in the middle of the night.

There is a perception, an assumption, that once alongside in a marina the boat and her crew are safe, that this is a good and appropriate time to recover from the rigours of a passage, or to celebrate in a local bar.

The Jackson County Marina fire suggests that however well maintained your vessel is, the craft and her company remain at risk – albeit from different hazards to those offshore. In the same way sailing folks consider how to jettison a rig after dismasting, perhaps there should be a similar cultural expectation to have an ‘Alongside escape kit’ Flotation, torch, protection from exposure, and perhaps an axe might save your life.

Onboard shore-power. Threat and blessing

Onboard shore-power is becoming ubiquitous. This brings massive benefits to boat owners. However at present a great deal of this alternating current 240 / 120V installations are not regulated in the same way that for example an installation in a house or a shop are. Equally the marina faces very significant challenges to supply AC through a moving salty environment to boats whose systems may be ‘ill conditioned’.

In the case of Jackson County, the marina seems to have been less than careful. A licensed electrician living there, who survived said:

I will tell you that the electric was not done right at all. They used a single pole breaker. So my boat was fed with a 50-amp single pole breaker, which is illegal in the electrical trade. And the reason why that’s illegal is because instead of the 30-amp wires — the boat is basically fed with two 30-amp shore cords…. By feeding it off a single pole breaker, it caused 50 amps to be put on the neutral.

Perhaps the lesson for boat owners in this case is that if marina power seems to brown out, stray current in the water is detected, or any electrical maintenance practice looks wrong, that this might not be the best place to moor.

The adequacy of frontline fire-fighting tools

Regularly provided frontline fire fighting tools may not be adequate In the first minutes of a fire emergency, the resources available for berth holders are frequently limited to drinking water hoses and a certain number of 9l commercial fire extinguishers.

I looked down the dock, I saw a wall of fire coming down towards us. I then ran back to the boat, woke up Mr. Kelly and his girlfriend screaming, fire, fire, fire! Deck’s on fire. I ran back out and grabbed the fire extinguisher. By the time I turned around with the fire extinguisher, the flames are so high and so hot and so strong that I knew the fire extinguisher wouldn’t do a thing.

The berth-holders at Jackson County Marina were unable to extinguish the fire with the resources they had immediately to hand. On the one hand, the availability of high pressure firefighting hand-lines might have permitted boundary cooling of neighbouring structures, the extinguishing of embers, and created a sustainable environment for escape. On the other, such resources in the toxic smoke cloud produced by burning FRP might have simply resulted in more fatalities.