A large marina fire in eastern Henrico County sent flaming boats adrift on the James River and emergency crews from around the region rushing to respond Friday.
About 3:30 p.m., Henrico fire Capt. Taylor Goodman said the fire had been marked under control, but the cause still was not clear.
Henrico fire marshals will lead an investigation that could take days, or possibly weeks, said Goodman, who said it was too early to speculate about whether the fire was arson.
Tony Wolpert, who lives in a house several hundred feet from the marina, said he noticed from his window a billow of smoke near the marina about 7 a.m.
He ran down to the marina and saw some boats on fire, and smoke filled the air.
He called 911.
With no one else in sight and unsure whether anyone was aboard any of the boats, Wolpert said he ran up and down the docks screaming as loud as he could: “Fire! Fire! Get out!”
He said he saw at least three people get out of their boats after his warning.
One man told Wolpert he was asleep and did not realize there was a fire. The other two survivors, a couple, also were unaware of the fire, he said.
Some boats became unmoored and were floating on fire in the river, he said.
From what he first saw, Wolpert said he initially thought the marina and all of the boats would be “a total loss.”
But he said he was relieved to hear reports that no one was injured and called it a “miracle.”
Goodman said an unknown number of people were sleeping on boats at the marina at the time of the fire but that firefighters believe everyone was able to escape safely.
About 60 boats are kept at the marina, many of which are yachts, Richmond Yacht Basin president Max Walraven said.
Walraven said it appears that 11 boats were destroyed. In total, Goodman said 12 to 15 boats were destroyed or damaged.
About 30 firefighters were part of the initial response. That included crews from Henrico and Chesterfield County as well as Richmond International Airport. As local crews continued to battle the fires Friday, they were joined by Virginia Beach, Newport News and James City County firefighters.
The U.S. Coast Guard also assisted, and an official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arrived to assess what, if any, measures need to be taken to deal with any potential oil leaks, Goodman said.
The Richmond Yacht Basin, situated just west of Interstate 295 in Henrico, calls itself Richmond’s oldest and largest full-service marina.
Mary Hertzler of Williamsburg has had a yacht with her husband, Steve, at the marina for nearly two years and said the marina is a friendly community of people who look out for one another.
She said about 12 people live in yachts at the marina, while many others have houses elsewhere but still sleep occasionally on their yachts overnight.
The Hertzlers walked to the marina on Friday unsure whether their yacht had been damaged, and they discovered it indeed was untouched.
Mary Hertzler said she was relieved and saddened at the same time, knowing that others had lost their boats. But she said the most important thing is that everyone appeared to be safe.
Mitch Romig, on vacation from Lancaster, Pa., was renting a blue houseboat at the marina for the night.
“We were sleeping and heard someone running around yelling that the marina was on fire. It was pretty big already when we woke up,” he said.
“Once we got out, I don’t know how many boats on the end were already on fire.
“It’s our last day of vacation. We weren’t expecting to get up to that.”
Millie Oakley cried as she approached the scene. She has kept a 42-foot boat she’s restoring at the marina for five years and already had heard that it was destroyed.
“Oh my God, it’s like a second home,” she said. “I was getting ready to take it down to Florida. So, dream gone.”