The boat was ablaze "bow to stern," say rescuers. Photo: Shawn Shapiro Jr.

VIDEO: Anglers Save Men from Fully-Engulfed Boat Fire off Va. Coast

For Mark Clemens and two friends, what started out as a slow day fishing for tuna ended up exhilarating as they saved the lives of two anglers about 26 miles off the Virginia coastline.

Clemens and two friends started the day on Tuesday looking for bluefin tuna about 26 miles out. They were in Clemens’s 35-foot Boston Whaler, in about 44-degree water. They marked a few fish, but did not land any. In
the afternoon, they decided to move inshore to the Triangle Wrecks. A few seabass would make a nice dinner, they thought.

At the wrecks, they noticed some black smoke rising in the distance, to the north. Rising smoke in the ocean might simply be exhaust from a container ship, or it might be far worse. Then the Coast Guard came on the VHF, asking if any vessels could proceed toward what had been reported as a vessel on fire. Clemens and crew stowed the fishing gear, then he pushed the throttle all the way down and ran wide open toward the smoke.

According to Clemens, “When we arrived, we were bow-to-bow. We could not see anyone in the water, and the boat was fully engulfed. The boat was literally burning from the bow to the stern.”

They circled the burning boat. “Then we saw two men clinging to the transom. They each had one foot on a trim tab, with their arms reaching over the transom. They were in the water from perhaps the waist down. It was terrible, as they were trapped between a fire and the cold water. I don’t know how they were able to hold on, as the top of the transom, by their hands, was completely on fire.”

Clemens eased his boat in toward the flames. One of the survivors was able to grab a gaff handle, and they helped him aboard. However, the second survivor was in much worse shape, and was not able to reach or grab the handle. They tossed him a life ring.

“Luckily, the ring toss was perfect and the ring literally landed on the guy’s head. He was able to slip his arm in the ring, and we pulled him in. It took
all three of us to get him in the boat. He had burns on his arms and face. He literally had no strength left from the hypothermia and burns. We put them both in the cabin, covered them with blankets, and turned the heater all the way up.”

Clemens contacted Coast Guard Cutter Dependable, which was already en route, and advised them that one survivor was in serious condition and a helicopter would be necessary. Clemens again ran wide open to meet the cutter.

The two survivors were transferred to the Dependable. In the Coast Guard video below, you can see them hoisted high above the ocean to the MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter:

Clemens learned from one survivor that they had also been fishing for tuna when they heard a pop from the engine room. When they opened the hatch, they were greeted with flames. The anglers tried to use a fire extinguisher, but the flames immediately spread throughout the boat. They went to the cabin top to get their life raft, but were driven overboard by the flames before they could get it launched. The two swam to the transom, and held on, trying to avoid the cold water and flames as best they could.

“They had all the safety gear. It just happened so fast. They did not even have time to make a distress call on the radio,” said Clemens.

The boat sank soon after the rescue, Clemens tells Bay Bulletin.

Clemens, who owns Murphy’s Propeller Shop in Norfolk, downplays his status as a heroic lifesaver. “On the water, everybody helps everybody else,” he says. One of his crew, Shawn Shapiro Jr., shares the same sentiment. He hopes the success story is a lesson to other boaters—don’t hesitate to help others on the water.

-Kendall Osborne