Locals and members of the Volunteer Fire Department worked together Monday, May 20, to extinguish a North Harbor fire that consumed "Whiskey Ted" Letcher's 34-foot boat.
Curious onlookers lined the harbor and several people watched from skiffs as the fire department arrived and doused the boat, which was completely destroyed.
Letcher was taking an afternoon walk at the time of the fire, unaware that the sirens he was hearing were for what he described as his "old, rotten plywood cabin cruiser," his residence for more than 19 years.
The Fire Department and EMS responded to the blaze after locals had already begun fighting the fire, which threatened other boats nearby.
"We got our harbor pump out and brought it to the scene and got water on board, and extinguished the fire," explained Dave Berg of the Petersburg Volunteer Fire Department. "We tried to determine if there was anybody on board, and fortunately there wasn't. The boat was unattended at the time the fire started."
Added Berg, "We did an investigation and determined that the fire was started in the cabin and probably started as a result of misplaced smoking material, a cigarette or something or some sort of electrical short in the wiring."
Berg said the fire probably built up inside, smoldering until all the oxygen was consumed, and then exploded with a rush of air that could have come with a broken window.
Berg credited locals with "getting a lot of the fire knocked down" before the department arrived.
Richard Van Trump, who helped to put out the blaze and whose boat is docked adjacent to Letcher's, was treated and released at Petersburg Medical Center for smoke inhalation.
"I dug up a few things, but literally 99.9 percent of everything was totally gone," Letcher said after going through his possessions. However, he said, "My cigarettes were on there and they weren't even burned."
Letcher says he'd been on the boat for so long because "I had accumulated too much stuff and I can't afford to get out of there." When he found out about the blaze, he said, "I felt really relieved. I didn't know how the heck I was gonna get that junk out of my way."
Since the fire, Letcher has learned that he may qualify for housing assistance and is looking forward to finding a place on dry land. "It was just getting too depressing living on that thing for so long," he said.
The Salvation Army provided Letcher with a temporary room at the Tides Inn. Letcher expressed his gratitude for their help, saying, "before I was even found, the Salvation Army had already contacted the police, the fire and the harbor guys."
Letcher says the burning of the boat will give him an opportunity to make a fresh start. "I figure like I had a weight lifted off of me when I had it go up; I feel like a Phoenix rising out of the ashes." He added, raising up his arms, "I'm looking forward to a brand-new beginning, tempered and purified by fire."