Close call as CT couple’s boat explodes

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It couldn’t have been a better day for cruising in Norwalk, Conn. The temperature Aug. 19 was in the 80s, with calm seas and sunny skies.

Clarence and Maria Sikes of Rowayton, Conn., had left Norwalk Cove Marina at about 2:30 p.m. with friends Joe and Ellen Corey on Lil’ C, a 28-foot 1984 Bertram with twin 350-hp Marine Power inboards.

Authorities aren't sure why this 1984 Bertram exploded while under way.

After anchoring in Stamford, Conn., for about an hour or so, they were heading back during low tide. About 5 p.m., the two ladies moved from the aft deck to the flybridge to join their husbands.

That move would save their lives. A half-hour later, the back of the vessel burst into flames.

“There was this huge boom and we all looked around, and we could see all this heavy black smoke and fire,” says Maria Sikes, 76. “The wind was blowing in our direction so we knew there wasn’t much time.”

With no time to go down into the cockpit for life jackets, they quickly dove into the water. Fortunately, Capt. Sal Tardella, owner of My Bonny Charters, was about 150 feet away with his sportfisherman, a 25-foot custom C-Hawk.

“The explosion was huge. … We saw what must’ve been part of the hatch go flying up like a Frisbee probably 25 feet into the air,” says Tardella. “I told them to start jumping into the water as I made my way over.”

About 30 seconds after the explosion, flames started to engulf the boat, he says. The man chartering the C-Hawk, Yasser Eldermendash, jumped into the water to assist Maria. Tardella’s mate, Bryan Kerschner, threw a buoy ring and a life jacket to those in the water. Tardella called the Norwalk Marine Police.

“We began to hear screaming through Channel 16 that there was a boat on fire and people were jumping off,” says Sgt. Peter LaPack. “We were only about a mile-and-a-half away so we were there within five minutes of the call.”

An anonymous good Samaritan aboard a small Boston Whaler rescued the passengers from the water before the police arrived.

“I have no idea who that guy was or what size his boat was, but it was sure nice of him to help,” says Clarence Sikes. “We are so thankful to everyone who helped us out that day.”

Clarence and Maria ended up riding back to the Norwalk Cove Marina in the police RIB while Ellen and Joe rode back with Tardella.

“I am so thankful this didn’t happen when we got to the marina because that’s where we were headed. It would’ve been a tragedy,” says Maria.

Authorities aren’t sure what caused the explosion, but LaPack says their best guess is a fuel leak in one of the tanks or a fuel-line malfunction.

Within 10-15 minutes the fire was contained.

The Norwalk Fire Department arrived at 5:49 p.m. and within 10 to 15 minutes the fire was contained. However, 118 gallons of gas had spilled over the surface of the water.

Meanwhile, all the Sikes could do was sit and watch their boat burn from the marina.

“Clarence really had a wonderful attitude about it. I turned to him and he said to me, ‘Oh, such beautiful memories,’ ” says Maria.

Clarence raised his children on Lil’ C. He bought the Bertram in 1986 and named it after his wife at the time, Cecilia, who died in the early ’90s. He and Maria have been married for 11 years.

“I’m not sure if I’m going to replace her. I’ve had my years of boating,” says Clarence.

When crews extinguished the fire around 7 p.m., LaPack says, barely any of the boat was left to be towed. While pulling in the charred remnants, the boat sank halfway to the marina.

At 7 a.m. the police and a commercial crane salvaged what was left of the vessel and disposed of it.

“The important thing is everyone is safe,” says Clarence, who is now in the process of handling the situation with his insurance. “We can’t thank everyone enough for all of their help and support.”

This article originally appeared in the Connecticut & New York Home Waters Section of the November 2009 issue.

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