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Fire Destroys Boat Dock In North Alabama, Killing At Least 8

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Authorities in Alabama are investigating an overnight fire at a marina on the Tennessee River. At least eight people died, and more than 35 boats were destroyed in the fire in the town of Scottsboro. Andrew Yeager of member station WBHM joins us now.

Hi, Andrew.

ANDREW YEAGER, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about what happened last night.

YEAGER: Well, just in terms - to set the scene, this is along the Tennessee River in north east Alabama. It's on a portion that's - of the river that's dammed, so it's really more like a lake than a river. So you have boats moored at this marina. And shortly after midnight, fire broke out, and pictures from this - from that moment show this wall of flames just glowing over the water. Those that were there talked about hearing screams of boaters and people on those boats. Once day broke, we saw a mangled, charred mess of water - rather, of wood and metal. And, as you said, at least eight people died. Seven others were taken to the hospital. They were released with minor injuries. Officials say that some of those were cases of hypothermia just simply because of the cold waters.

SHAPIRO: Explain why so many people were injured and killed in this fire after midnight on a Sunday night.

YEAGER: Well, what we understand is that where the fire was positioned, it was in such a way that it made it difficult for emergency responders to get to the fire and put it out. And at the same time, it made it difficult for people to escape. They were essentially trapped.

SHAPIRO: So people were living, sleeping on these boats.

YEAGER: Yes. Some of these boats were houseboats. Some of these people - you know, some cases, they were there as their permanent residence. And the only option they had was to jump and swim away. And you might think, why would you have a fire on water? But some of these boats had gas motors, propane tanks, things that can explode easily.

SHAPIRO: So what are investigators looking into today?

YEAGER: Well, right now the focus is still on recovery, and with that comes the possibility the death toll could go higher. There's not an official list of the people who were living there. And so you have those that lived on houseboats, but there also could be visitors, other people passing through. Some boats sank, potentially trapping some of the people who were - you know, who were there. At a news conference earlier today, Scottsboro's fire chief Gene Necklaus said that it will be some time before this recovery work is done.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GENE NECKLAUS: This is going to take - this not going to be over today. We're going to be out here for a while - I'd estimate three to four days, possibly longer - just removing boats, checking boats and then going to the next one.

SHAPIRO: So, Andrew, this sounds like an incredibly involved process if we're talking about some boats and people who were killed who might have sank in the river. Tell us what's going to be involved going forward.

YEAGER: Yeah. Certainly, over the next few days, they'll be pulling apart the wreckage to see if there's anybody who might have - any bodies that might still be found. There'll be a lot of work to do, they said. Not only are there boats near the marina near the dock but also that drifted out and sank elsewhere in the river. We don't know exactly how long this process may take, but what we do know is that once that recovery process is over, then the state fire marshal's office will take over. They'll be charged with trying to determine a cause. They'll also be working with local officials as well as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. So there are multiple agencies from multiple levels of government that will be looking into this.

SHAPIRO: That's Andrew Yeager of member station WBHM reporting from Alabama on that fatal fire on the Tennessee River.

Thank you, Andrew.

YEAGER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.