Witness Recounts Sailboat Blast that Killed Boy

Sept. 01--STUART -- Eyewitness accounts of a boat fire Sunday that killed an 11-year-old boy tell of a fast billowing blaze that destroyed the vessel, injured the parents and left those onshore feeling helpless.

It was horrible listening to the mother out on the boat, because she was out there for quite some time before they brought her into the dock and she was just screaming," Carol Douglas of Stuart recalled Monday. "Horrific screaming, at the top of her lungs ... it was a horrible thing to watch. I mean you felt so helpless."

The family lived aboard the 42-foot sailboat, now destroyed.

Douglas, 62, watched the tragic scene from a dock at the 198-slip Sunset Bay Marina & Anchorage after seeing smoke rising west from the river as she arched the Roosevelt Bridge. She and her sister and brother-on-law pulled into the marina and watched as police, firefighters and onlookers reacted to the boat blaze erupting in the St. Lucie River beyond the dock and mooring field. She saw the distraught parents come ashore, the man holding up a sobbing woman.

"She said to the police officer on the dock 'my child is in the forward cabin," Douglas said. "And then she started crying."

Charlie Birely, 11, died on the burning boat, Stuart police spokesman Brian Bossie said Monday afternoon. He said the boy was autistic. His parents, Brian Birely, 59, and Karen Laake, 53, tried to save him before they were forced to flee the inferno. Rescue workers later took the couple to a Miami hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation. Details about their recovery were not available Monday.

Brian Birely is a retired state employee, Bossio said. Laake is a local artist.

A 13-year-old daughter was not onboard when the fire started, but authorities released no additional information about her.

Investigation continues

On Monday the marina -- where a day before dozens of stunned people had lined the docks -- showed no signs of the trauma and loss that came ashore. At Shepherd Park, all that remained of where the charred hull was brought ashore were two thin yellow strips of police tape wrapped around a pair of queen palms.

Investigators, meanwhile, were trying to piece together what happened.

Bossio said a propane tank exploded after an initial blast, but it's not known what caused the first explosion.

The boat was towed to a storage yard in Fort Pierce. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials and Stuart police are conducting a joint investigation into the blaze.

Stuart Fire Chief Dave Dyal said the vessel is so damaged, it's likely a cause will remain undetermined.

"There's no way they're determining that," he said Monday at Shepard Park. "We will never know the cause unless witnesses can tell us; the two adults that were on board."

Douglas said when police and fire rescue arrived Sunday, she was curious why only two firefighters with a pair of extinguishers were the first to respond. She asked why the city didn't keep more fire equipment at the marina.

"They showed up with two small fire extinguishers and that was pretty much it when I was there," she said. "I saw later they showed up with a boat and fire hoses but that was way later."

The two firefighters, she said, had to wait for another truck to arrive that was equipped with axes needed at the boat.

Dyal said when responding to a boat fire, officials first determine if the vessel is attached to a dock or is offshore. If a boat catches fire at a commercial marina, they have fire suppression systems in place that help to control a blaze.

A boat on fire offshore is another matter, he said.

"The challenge comes for boats that are not dockside," he said. "At that point, we don't have any fire suppression capability for anything that's not attached to a dock."

But he said offshore boat fires are rare.

This is Stuart's first during his eight years with the department, Dyal said.

Stuart Fire Rescue had a boat a few years ago that was shared with other agencies but Dyal said it wasn't used enough and was too expensive to maintain.

"The catastrophic fire was well underway before we could have ever gotten anything there," he said. "The guys did their valiant effort to try to pop that front hatch open to maintain a rescue but the interior conditions were so untenable, there's no way of making an entry into that."

It was past midnight Sunday when the boat was pulled from the water.

Bossio said it's too early to know if there's to be a criminal investigation, but for now, investigators are treating the area of the explosion as a crime scene.

Douglas said she watched as Brian Birley pulled Karen Laake from the boat, as the flames grew and black smoke billowed toward a blue sky.

"We saw a gentleman on the boat pull a lady out of the front hatch of the boat. (He) pulled her up and you could see him helping him lowering her down into the boat that was down alongside the boat that was on fire," Douglas recalled. "The next thing we hear is 'you've got to get off the boat, you've got to get off the boat now!' And it was a few minutes before he did, before he was willing to get off the boat."

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Stuart Police are asking anyone who may have witnessed the incident or have any information that would be helpful in the investigation to contact Detective Richard Serra at 772-220-3929.

Or, contact Treasure Coast Crime Stoppers and remain anonymous at 1-800-273-TIPS (8477).

Read our day-long coverage from Sunday.

Copyright 2014 - Treasure Coast Newspapers, Stuart, Fla.

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