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Four saved from Biscayne Bay blaze

Sea Tow captain, good Samaritan pluck boaters from water as the Sunseeker Predator 56 burns

The weather was pleasant and the wind blew northeast at 5 to 10 knots as 23-year-old Craig Crumbliss took his morning patrol of the South Florida waters outside Miami in late February.

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Then Crumbliss heard a mayday call over his VHF: Halcyon, a Sunseeker motoryacht, was on fire about three miles east of Elliott Key — roughly five miles from where he was patrolling. The Sea Tow captain kicked up his twin 200-hp Yamaha 2-strokes and pointed his 24-foot AB Inflatable Nautilus in the direction of the distressed boat.

“The boaters sounded pretty scared [over the radio],” says Crumbliss, a Miami native.

The call came at 10:30 a.m., according to the Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue Department. The four boaters aboard the 1999 Sunseeker Predator 56 first tried to extinguish the fire with a blanket. When that didn’t work, they notified rescue crews on their VHF and jumped into the water, according to spokesman Lt. Elkin Sierra.

Craig Crumbliss

Fire officials don’t know what ignited the fire or where it originated, according to Sierra.

The boaters, all from Ohio, were taking Halcyon to Palm Island in Biscayne Bay. The boat had recently undergone repairs from a nearby shipyard, and this was its first run, according to both Crumbliss and Sierra. (Neither was able to provide specifics about what repairs were done or where.)

Crumbliss, a captain with Sea Tow Key Biscayne, arrived on the scene first — about 10 minutes after he got the call. When he pulled up to the vessel, light smoke poured out of the boat and flames were visible, he says.

Sea Tow Key Biscayne Captain Craig Crumbliss was first on the scene when a Sunseeker burned and sank off Elliott Key.

“When I got out, my first concern was for the people’s safety. They were out in the water and I checked to see if they were OK,” Crumbliss says. The four people on board were already in the water.

The boat’s owner was floating with a ditch bag containing their documents, a cell phone and other important articles, but the bag’s bulkiness hindered her from swimming toward rescue, Crumbliss says. The captain pulled the owner from the water, while the other three swam toward another good Samaritan’s boat, which arrived shortly after Crumbliss, he says.

“Within 10 minutes, the boat was really engulfed and obscured by heavy black smoke,” Crumbliss says.

When the fire department and Coast Guard arrived, the boaters were transferred to a Miami-Dade Police Department boat. The four were examined to make sure they were medically fit, then taken to Miami Beach Marina, where they were met by family members, according to authorities.

The fire department spent 30 minutes dousing the flames, using a blend of foam and water, according to Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue Department. Firefighters were concerned the 500 gallons of fuel in the yacht’s two tanks could feed the fire, Sierra says. Ultimately, the fire was extinguished before the fuel ignited.

While the boaters escaped the blaze unharmed, the boat did not. Even with the fire extinguished, Halcyon sank and came to rest on the bottom, 35 feet down.

The Sunseeker morotyacht was later refloated and towed.

Capt. Jeb Bennett, a Sea Tow diver who helped refloat Halcyon, says the boat came to rest upside down. Halcyon was refloated the first week in March with the help of a crane and barge. It took five days, according to Bennett.

As of early March, the cause of the fire remained undetermined by the Miami-Dade County Fire Department inspectors, Sierra says.

“What that means is, there isn’t strong evidence either way,” Sierra says. “They have no way to determine how this happened.”

The case could reopen if more evidence was turned in to department investigators, he says.

This article originally appeared in the Florida & the South Home Waters Section of the May 2009 issue.