Urbanna Fire Update

There was an excellent article by Larry Chowning in the Southside Sentinal last week.

Two die in massive Urbanna marina fire; 21 boats destroyed

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Above is what remains after a Monday morning fire destroyed the main boathouse of Dozier’s Port Urbanna Marina on Urbanna Creek. (Photo by T.G. McMurtrie) 

by Larry Chowning

At about 4:30 a.m. on Monday, February 29, the sky over Urbanna Creek glowed orange through rising black smoke as the main boathouse and docks of Dozier’s Port Urbanna Marina went up in flames.

“There are two confirmed fatalities and we are currently conducting a criminal investigation,” said State Police Sergeant Michelle Anaya at a press conference at 11:30 a.m. Monday in the parking lot of Colonial Pizza on Watling Street in Urbanna.

The deceased, Julie and Frank Blantz of Urbanna, were apparently spending the night on their boat at the marina when the fire broke out.

The marina’s main boathouse was completely destroyed and all 21 boats moored there were lost. Also, boats and structures were damaged at the old Texaco Oil dock just north of the main marina.

The most southern part of the marina (closest to Urbanna bridge) received no damage.

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The Beginning

At 4:34 a.m., the first call was made to dispatchers at the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office reporting a fire at old Southside Marine in Urbanna, now Dozier’s Port Urbanna Marina. At 4:39 a.m., a loud explosion rattled windows and awakened residents of homes on Watling Street in town, a short distance from the marina. The explosion prompted a series of 911 calls to the dispatcher who responded to each call by saying, “Fire personnel are on their way.”

Beth Justice in the Burton House overlooking the marina said she first saw a sailboat go up in flames at 4:39 a.m. After calling 911, Justice took photos of the burning boat on her cell phone. “I had watched the boat sail into town yesterday and thought to myself what a beautiful boat. I watched it burn up,” she said.

At about 4:45 a.m. the first fire trucks arrived, stopping momentarily at the top of Cross Street as firemen looked down at the marina that was totally engulfed in flames.

That was the start of a long morning of fighting the fire and a series of mini-explosions as the fire jumped from boat to boat, creating bursts of flames as it crawled along. This would go on through the darkness until the last boat, fuel tank, and propane cylinder were gone.

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Standing on the Hill

Throughout the darkness, the best location for viewing the fire was the hill at Buddy and Bobbie Wyker’s home, Overlook, on Watling Street. People came and went with cameras, many seeing for the first time what was left of their boats and the marina.

The main topic of conversation was the direction of the wind. It was blowing hard to the north (toward the Rappahannock). “If it was blowing this way, we may have lost the church (Urbanna Baptist) and everything on Watling Street,” was a frequent comment.

When Carroll and Dana Davies arrived on the scene, there was a hush over the group. Everyone sensed the Davies’ pain at the loss of their Colonel, a 1936 wooden yacht that had been a part of the maritime scene and culture of Urbanna for decades.

It was then that everyone realized there might be a greater loss than the boats and marina. Carroll immediately asked about a couple who may have been spending the night on a boat at the marina. Although it was not known then, the couple had already perished in the fire. Carroll asked whether they had gotten out safely. And then he pointed to a horrible clue that they did not—two vehicles parked side-by-side in the marina parking lot. “Their cars are still there,” he said.

“Oh, my God!” someone gasped. There was no more mention of it.

Lawrence Fuccella was on the hill and called David Cottrell in Richmond. Cottrell owns a home just outside of Urbanna and a classic, refurbished deadrise boat moored at the marina. “Sorry I’m calling you so early but . . . ,” said Fuccella.

After that conversation Fuccella called Bill Hight whose wooden Chesapeake Bay buyboat 55th Virginia was docked about 100 feet downwind of the fire. Hight reported, “Firemen are throwing as much water as they can on my boat trying to keep it from catching fire, but my building (the former Boathouse Restaurant) has been gutted and I’ve lost all my stuff.”

Fortunately, 55th Virginia survived the fire along with The Residences at Oyster Harbor condominiums next door.

From the hill, a boat could be seen ablaze in the creek. The fire had burned its lines, and the fully-engulfed vessel was floating toward the Urbanna Town Marina. Sheriff David Bushey was in a borrowed Christchurch School boat and was able to direct the burning vessel toward Rosegill Point, where it burned for hours. A boat owner at the Urbanna Town Marina was asked to watch the boat as it burned and to alert the sheriff if it somehow got ashore. The volunteer noted the drifting boat had a 6-foot keel. “It’s not going ashore,” he said.

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The Battle

The massive flames extended over the water and blocked access by firemen to the far end of the pier. The Lower Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department (LMVFD) ladder truck was extremely effective as it towered above the fire and was able to reach far out over the burning boats and docks.

LMVFD Chief Jimmy Walden reported as he was leaving town at 11:15 a.m. the ladder truck alone poured 350,000 gallons of water onto the flames.

The closest fire hydrant was at Prince George and Cross streets and a fire hose extended across the road and down the hill toward the marina, which necessitated closing the street to traffic. State police also re-directed traffic at the Urbanna Bridge and advised motorists to use Town Bridge Road to enter town.

A York County fire boat arrived and was able to put out flames from Urbanna Creek.

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter hovered overhead and a Coast Guard boat aided state police in recovering the two bodies. About 10:30 a.m. state police requested that all onlookers leave the waterfront hill sides while the Coast Guard and police searched the debris and water for the two missing persons.

Once the fire was totally out at about 9 a.m., the Coast Guard, Virginia Marine Resources Commission and other agencies worked together to contain oil and other toxic debris in an attempt to limit the environmental impact. Containment booms remain in place on the creek as the cleanup progresses.

Church Service

Urbanna Baptist Church hosted a prayer service at 4:30 p.m. at the church on Monday. The church was nearly full of grieving people along with volunteers who had been engaged in the fire-fighting and clean-up efforts.

The church’s pastor, Rev. Jonathan Davis, offered prayers for the couple who died in the fire, for the first responders, and for others affected by the fire.

The husband and wife were in the process of retiring to Urbanna and were fixing up the brick home, known to most in town as Dr. A. L. Van Name’s old house, on Rappahannock Avenue. The Blantzes were spending nights on their boat with their cat awaiting the completion of the house renovations. Rev. Davis also gave a prayer for the couple’s church family at Sandston Presbyterian Church in Sandston.

Middlesex County Emergency Services Coordinator Mark Nugent spoke at the church service, emphasizing that the State Police investigation is similar to those conducted at any major fire. “It does not necessarily mean it was caused by arson,” he added.
Several TV stations and newspapers reported that arson was the cause of the fire.

Urbanna Baptist also provided a dinner meal for volunteers and professional personnel who were still in town and had assisted in fighting the fire and the cleanup.

Also involved in the fire fighting and aftermath were the Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department of Urbanna, Hartfield Volunteer Fire Department, Upper Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department (UMVFD) of Water View, Gloucester Fire Department, York County Fire Department, Central Middlesex Volunteer Rescue Squad of Urbanna, and Middlesex County Volunteer Rescue Squad of Deltaville. The UMVFD Auxiliary brought water and assisted firemen.

Also on the scene were the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office, Virginia Marine Resources Commission, Virginia State Police, Coast Guard Station Milford Haven, Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, a Coast Guard incident management team, Virginia Department of Emergency Management, and a Newport News HAZMAT team.

posted 03.02.2016
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