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Firefighters use a pontoon boat to get above the flames as they pour water on the remains of the Ponder Boat Sales building that burned last Wednesday morning. It took firefighters from three departments more than an hour to bring the fire under control. One man was injured and 16 boats were destroyed. Photos by Wade Bell

Blaze claims boat shop, hurts owner

Ruled accident, fire is second in four years

June 13, 2012
A Taswell man was injured and his business was destroyed last Wednesday morning as fire claimed Ponder Boat Sales west of English. Robert Jones suffered second-degree burns, smoke inhalation and a possible concussion in an explosion and blaze that also claimed at least 16 boats in and around the business.

The fire was called in at 6:30 by a passerby who said the structure was fully engulfed. When firefighters arrived, they found most of the structure ablaze with a thick, black plume of smoke that was visible more than 10 miles away.

"The whole roof of the building in the rear, where the maintenance shop is, had basically collapsed in," English Volunteer Fire Department assistant chief Mike Benham said. "There were multiple boats, inside, outside, that were on fire. There's no fire hydrants in the area, so what we did with the first engine that got there, we used the deck gun on it to knock it down a little bit from the eastern side so we could see what was going on.

"With all the other boats there, that sort of tied us up to a specific point, so with the other trucks coming from Taswell, they used what water they had on the boats and the building. The building was a total loss by that time."

Jones was not visible to the firefighters when they first arrived as the black, toxic smoke hugged the ground on the west side of the building. After about 10 minutes, and with part of the fire knocked down, firefighters found Jones on the ground unconscious. Jones woke as he was being placed in an ambulance before being transported to a local hospital. Benham said the smoke was highly toxic from burning tires, fiberglass and other materials in the building.

"That black smoke was rolling so close to the ground you couldn't see," he said. "It's all toxic. It's all bad stuff, so you wanted people out of that plume. You don't expect that kind of plume from a building."

"Enos Schwartz is the one who actually found (Jones). He was the first guy to make a trip down through there. Then, Benton Stroud and Jacob (Mitchell) started taking care of him. Jacob just completed his EMT course last summer in the summer program and has been trying to work a little bit part time with the ambulance," Benham said.

"Fortunately, the ambulance was already there on the scene, so they got him loaded up," he said. "They got him conscious. They shook him around a little when they took him out of there, put him on a backboard, and away they went."

Besides English, fire departments from Marengo and Leavenworth responded, as did the county's Emergency Medical Services, Emergency Management Agency and sheriff's department. The state fire marshal's office also helped with the investigation. Stuart Sturgeon also assisted, moving boats with his tractor, some of them still burning at the time.

Because there were no hydrants, tankers had to travel six miles round trip to bring water to fight the fire. Firefighters also had to deal with several pressurized, flammable gas containers that exploded or vented during the blaze.

Benham said the cause of the fire was ruled accidental.

"It appeared he opened the store around 5, in that area, and had opened up the two bays," he said. "He was working on some boats, various different boats. The boat that was located in the center of the back bay, he had climbed up on there, was pouring some fuel into the tank, and there was a small battery charger. He slipped, spilled the fuel, knocked the battery charger off and it sparked and it lit and exploded. That quick."

"Due to the close confines he had a tough time getting out," he said. "He's not real sure, but we think he exited through the eastern bay door that had the pontoon boat in it. As he ran around the side of the building, apparently to go to his house to call 911, (he) became overcome with that heavy smoke."

"He's burned on his arm, had his hair singed, things like that," Benham said. "He apparently had passed out while running and hit head-first into a gravel area. You can see all the marks (across his forehead)."

The heat from the fire was so intense at one point that the metal pontoons on one boat melted.

"For it to be in a rural setting where there's no fire hydrants, everything that was done out there, I felt they did a pretty good job with what they had to work with as advanced as the fire was," Benham said of the firefighters. "(Jones) was very fortunate he got out and they found him. They could have run over him as dark as the smoke was."

It was the second time in less than four years that fire had struck the business. On Sept. 15, 2008, following Hurricane Ike, recharged power lines that were still on the structure ignited a blaze that destroyed the business.

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