In the early hours of Monday, January 27, 2020, a massive fire engulfed a boat dock within Jackson County Park in Scottsboro, Alabama – roughly 100 miles northeast of Birmingham. By Monday afternoon, local reports confirmed 8 people perished in the fire, 7 were rescued near the marina, and several others remain missing. The Scottsboro Fire Chief, Gene Necklaus, also confirmed that 35 known boats were destroyed in the fire.
The boat docks were situated on the Tennessee River, connected to Jackson County Park. Of the boats destroyed, it has been confirmed that the boats consisted of houseboats, pontoon vessels, and other recreational watercraft. Sadly, some of the docked houseboats were the permanent residences of multiple victims. Eight deceased victims were pulled from the water, and seven others were rescued and taken to nearby hospitals for treatment of hypothermia resulting from jumping into the cold waters to avoid the fire. It remains unclear how many people were on the boats and dock when the fire broke out. Chief Necklaus explained:
“We’re going to put every resource into ensuring that every vessel and every piece of this lake that we can reasonably suspect is clear. We don’t want anybody unaccounted for . . . . [It has] proved difficult because of the nature of people coming and going off of houseboats and not knowing how many people were staying with who.”
Chief Deputy Rock Harnen with the Jackson County Sherriff’s Department stated, in regards to missing victims, that it “doesn’t mean they’re in the water and it doesn’t mean they’re dead. We’re making attempts to find them.” Harnen also illuminated that “the dock is collapsed . . . we can’t get to all of the boats right now,” and that they “have a list of residents here and we are trying to confirm whereabouts of everyone.” Chief Harnen elaborated that “[t]here were numerous people rescued,” and that “we’re trying to get divers down here to search for possible victims.”
Chief Necklaus stated that when firefighters arrived at the dock after being called at 12:40 a.m., 30% of the dock was already on fire. Accordingly, the firefighters had “substantial access problems” in reaching people trapped by surrounding flames. He explained that the “blaze was on the inland side of the dock, making rescues difficult.”
Accounts of victims have now surfaced:
Phillip Pace of Trussville, Alabama, who was rescued from the water, stated that he heard cracking noises before seeing the blaze on the dock, and that “you could hear people screaming.” He was able to get on a boat with his friends and move away from the blazing dock, but then that boat caught fire when it collided with a blazing pontoon. He swam 60-100 yards before a rescue boat pulled him back to shore.
The cause of the fire remains unknown. Chief Necklaus said that his department and local police will collaborate with the State Fire Marshal’s Office to investigate the cause.
The Jackson County Alabama Emergency Management Agency has now tweeted a warning by stating:
Due to ongoing firefighting/rescue operations, please avoid the areas around Jackson County Park, both land and water, until further notified.
Our experienced boating accident lawyers at Morrow & Sheppard will follow up with any updates to the investigation as information becomes available. We offer our condolences to the families and friends of the victims who suffered this catastrophic tragedy.