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Engine trouble leads to consuming fire

A 31-foot 2006 Chaparral with twin engines went up in flames about 300 yards offshore from the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, Conn., on a weekday afternoon in late August. Quick thinking by a local marina manager helped save the five people aboard from any injuries.

An afternoon cruise on the Connecticut River ended when a suspected engine fire burned out the hull and forced five people to abandon the powerboat.

Essex Island Marina picked up a distress call from the Chaparral via VHF radio at about 1:45 p.m. Aug. 26, according to office manager Cindy Schoch. The marina staff called 911 at 1:47 p.m., and the call was referred to Essex Fire Engine Co. No. 1.

"They were having engine trouble as they were coming up the river and they got into the mooring area and the engine failed," says Steven Olsen, assistant volunteer fire chief. "I'm not sure where they were coming from."

Cy Libby, marina manager for Brewer Dauntless Shipyard and Marina in Essex, says one of his dock workers pointed out the vessel, which had begun pouring out black smoke.

"I don't remember what time it was - I just jumped into our [20-foot] launch and got out to them," Libby says. "They were only about 500 yards out from the marina - it only took minutes to get to them."

When Libby arrived, all of the people on board were near the bow. There were two adults and three children, according to Libby. Once they were safely transferred into the launch, Libby was able to set the Chaparral's anchor from the bow without leaving the safety of his vessel. Just as he began powering back to shore, he looked back and saw that the Chaparral had burst into flames. He dropped the people off at the dock of the marina.

Essex Fire Engine Co. No.1 launched its fireboat, as well as two fire engines on land, and arrived at the scene shortly before 2 p.m., Olsen says. The Old Saybrook Fire Department's fireboat arrived at the same time and extinguished the fire offshore. The Deep River Volunteer Fire Department was also at the scene with a 24-foot aluminum Munson Packman Landing Craft, Olsen says.

He says Sea Tow of Old Saybrook towed the vessel to the nearby Essex Boat Works. The fire took about 20 minutes to be fully extinguished.

"We got the boat out of the water and went over it, looking for hot spots that might still exist," Olsen says. "It took us a couple of hours."

Olsen says nothing was salvaged from the vessel.

"Thankfully the boat wasn't on the docks - it could've been a whole lot worse," Olsen says. "It was smart to anchor it out there."

The cause of the boat's engine trouble is not known at this time and the boat owner declined to comment.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.