Boat Fires---Charlotte County Florida
Shrimp boat burns
Restaurant not effected by early morning blaze
PLACIDA -- Local fishermen gathered on the docks by the Placida Fishery early Wednesday morning, already discussing ways to help their friends, Harry and Cindy Van Petten, as they watched the Englewood couple's livelihood burn.
The Van Petten's 75-foot shrimp boat was destroyed by a fire that is under investigation by the State Fire Marshal's Office. According to Charlotte County Fire & EMS spokeswoman Dee Hawkins, the blaze erupted on the boat around 5 a.m.
"We don't know what caused the fire as yet," Hawkins said Wednesday.
The shrimp boat was docked next to the Fishery Restaurant's storage area, formerly a fish and ice house. Flames from the boat damaged some of the storage structure but the restaurant was not damaged.
"We are very thankful for the fire department's quick response," said Fishery owner Greg Albritton.
The boat, which the Van Petten's purchased from the Fishery about a year and a half ago, was not insured.
"It's a complete loss for them. That boat was a real piece of history," said friend and fellow fisherman Buz Inman. "Heck, I can remember running around on the boat when I was a kid. We will help them out however we can."
Englewood Area Fire Control District, Charlotte County Fire & EMS and the Boca Grande Fire Department all responded to the call, as did the Charlotte County Special Operations Unit to help with cleanup.
"So far, there haven't been any fuel leaks," Hawkins said. "But we put up booms around the boat anyway for precaution."
Mercury Marine donated the booms.
"It's been a real good example of the communities and fire departments working together," Hawkins said.
The Environmental Protection Agency was called in to help pump out the boat, which was filled with water by the firefighters' hoses.
No one was injured in the blaze.
In the 1930s and '40s, the Albritton's fish house, like other area fish houses, stood as the economic backbone when Lemon Bay, Placida and other local waters served as the lifeblood of the area's communities. Five years after the 1994 commercial gill net ban, in July 1999, the Albritton family decided to close the doors of the Placida Fish Market and the Boca Grande Fishery, the family's wholesale seafood business, and sold their fleet of shrimp and fishing boats.
The Van Petten's boat, Gasparilla VI, was the "youngest" shrimper, built about 30 years ago.
"I can remember working on her," said Richard Sands, who retired from fishing shortly after the net ban. "Me and another guy drove up to St. Augustine to put the ribs on the boat and did some other odds and ends work on her. It's a real shame."
Second boat fire reported
Later Wednesday evening, Englewood firefighters were again called out to battle another, unrelated boat fire in Placida.
At about 8 p.m., a 17-foot fishing boat tied to a dock at 6 El Sol Drive in the Gasparilla Mobile Home Park was destroyed when an apparent electrical shortage caught the boat on fire.
Englewood Fire District's Deputy Chief Paul Brenton said the fire was not ruled suspicious.
"A next-door neighbor was sitting on his porch when he saw the boat go up," Brenton said. "He said no one was around."
Brenton said the boat was an older model and a witness reported the owner recently had work done to the vessel.
"The battery was pretty fried, which usually indicates an electrical short," Brenton said.
The State Fire Marshal was not called in to investigate the later fire.
No injuries were reported.
You can e-mail Alyssa Schnugg at email@example.com
By ALYSSA SCHNUGG
Boat fire cripples shrimpers' business
The blaze clouds the future for "shrimp lady" Cindy Van Petten and her husband.
By KARA CHALMERS
PLACIDA -- For nearly 20 years, the coolers in the back of Cindy Van Petten's pickups provided the delicacies sought by Placida's shrimp lovers.
But an early morning fire on the 73-foot fishing vessel owned by the "shrimp lady" struck a possibly fatal blow to her livelihood.
"It's been a nightmare," Van Petten said Thursday.
She estimated the fire caused more than $35,000 worth of damage to the boat, which was valued at $45,000.
Van Petten, 46, didn't have insurance on the Gasparilla VI; she said she couldn't afford it.
She also said she can't afford to buy another boat.
A carpenter friend told Van Petten the Gasparilla VI might be saved by replacing many of its parts, but that would be extremely expensive.
Van Petten said she's always prepared herself for bad luck because the fishing industry can be so unpredictable.
"But I've never been prepared for anything like this," she said.
Her white rubber boots black with soot, Van Petten spent Thursday morning trying to clean up some of the mess before her husband, Harry, got to the scene.
Harry Van Petten, 55, was away on a hunting trip in Michigan when the fire broke out around 5:30 a.m. Wednesday. The blaze destroyed all of his work clothes, said Cindy Van Petten. She said she broke the bad news to her husband over the phone.
The vessel was docked against an old wholesale fishery building on Fishery Road when it caught fire. The building sustained minor fire damage.
The couple have been in the shrimping business for 19 years. Cindy Van Petten would make the deliveries and sell the shrimp while her husband would maintain the boat. They did the fishing together.
The two weren't planning to go out shrimping again until the day after Thanksgiving, Cindy Van Petten said.
The Van Pettens bought the Gasparilla VI from the Albritton family, which owns the old fishery building as well as the Fishery Restaurant, less than two years ago.
Besides sales to individuals, the Van Pettens sold shrimp to the Albrittons for their fish market, and to Island Court, a seafood and bait shop at 1939 Beach Road in Englewood.
Van Petten said she's worried about her customers and said that she might buy shrimp from another shrimper to sell.
Edna Minton, a salesperson at Island Court, said Van Petten had been the shop's sole supplier of shrimp for eight years. Now that Van Petten is out of business, at least temporarily, Minton said she doesn't know what she'll do.
"I'll have to look for someone else," Minton said.
The Van Pettens bought the Gasparilla VI because they wanted to be able to follow shrimp offshore, and the smaller shrimp boats they had owned couldn't handle rough seas, Cindy Van Petten said.
"She's been good to us," Van Petten said of the vessel.
Englewood Area Fire Control District firefighter Roman Grabowski said he's bought shrimp from Van Petten for 10 years. He recalled how excited the shrimp lady was when she bought the Gasparilla VI.
"She was working hard all the time," Grabowski said.
When Van Petten got to the scene of the fire Wednesday, she said, she recognized almost all the firefighters.
She's been delivering shrimp to Englewood and Charlotte County fire stations for years.
Van Petten said she's on "pins and needles," waiting to find out what caused the fire. Investigator Adam Rivero of the state fire marshal's office said Thursday that the blaze has been classified as accidental.
He said it's likely there was a mechanical malfunction with the refrigerator in the boat's galley.
Van Petten said she thinks she and her husband have enough money saved to get by for a couple of months. She said she could get a job as a nail technician or an aesthetician, since she has training in those trades.
But she said fishing is what she likes to do. And Harry grew up in Boca Grande and was catching and selling fish by age 10.
"He's been on water all his life," she said. "In his eyes, this is all he knows.
"If we're not shrimping, I don't know what we're going to do."
Investigation rules accidental
Fire Marshal: Refrigerator burned shrimp boat
PLACIDA -- The blaze that cost Harry and Cindy Van Petten their livelihood was started by a short in a refrigerator located in the galley of the Gasparilla VI, their 73-foot shrimp boat, according to the State Marshal's Office.
Investigator Adam Rivero said Wednesday's fire was ruled accidental and was "most probably" due to the malfunctioning refrigerator.
"We estimated the damage to be about $35,000," he said Friday.
It is a $35,000 the Van Petten's don't have.
"Some carpenter friends of mine are trying to see if the boat can be repaired," Cindy said Friday through tears. "It might be cheaper to buy a new boat -- but we can't afford that either."
The boat, almost 30 years old, was not insured.
"We couldn't afford it," Van Petten, 46, said quietly
Van Petten spoke haltingly about the fire, as if trying to explain to herself how it could have happened.
"I had groceries in the (refrigerator) so it was on," she said. "We were going back out (on the boat) after Thanksgiving. We didn't want to haul it (the food) all back."
According to Charlotte County Fire & EMS spokeswoman Dee Hawkins, the blaze erupted on the boat at about 5 a.m. The boat was docked next to the Placida Fishery Restaurant's storage area that used to be a fish and ice house. Flames from the boat damaged some of the structure, but the restaurant was not damaged.
The Van Pettens bought the boat a year and a half ago from the Albritton family, who owned and operated the Placida Fish Market, Boca Grande Fishery and the Fishery Restaurant.
Five years after the 1994 commercial gill net ban, in July 1999, the Albritton family decided to close the doors of the Placida Fish Market and the Boca Grande Fishery, the family's wholesale seafood business, and sold their fleet of shrimp and fishing boats.
The Van Pettens have been shrimpers for almost 20 years, selling shrimp locally to restaurants and wholesale markets. Almost two years ago, they decided to invest in a bigger boat that could fight the waves farther offshore.
"I sold my little boat, Miss Cindy, and bought the Gasparilla," Van Petten said. "It was going to be our retirement."
Harry Van Petten, 56, was out of town on a hunting trip in Michigan when Cindy called him with the news that they had lost their boat. He returned to Englewood Thursday night.
"He isn't doing very well," Cindy said.
Like loving parents with a sick child, the Van Pettens spent the last two nights sleeping on a blanket on top of cement next to their charred boat.
"We had to watch out for more fires popping up, and we did have a couple (of flare-ups)," she said.
While Van Petten said the future for her and her husband is bleak, their friends and the residents of Englewood have helped her get through the last few days.
"Everyone has been wonderful," she said, her voice heavy with emotion. "and very supportive."
In addition to being a local landmark, the Gasparilla VI was featured in the motion picture "Out of Time," starring Denzel Washington. The movie was filmed in Placida and Boca Grande late July.
You can e-mail Alyssa Schnugg at firstname.lastname@example.org
By ALYSSA SCHNUGG
Englewood Assistant Editor