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Fire spreads to 6 boats


Published in the Asbury Park Press 06/21/05

The Knot N Emergency is one of four boats docked in Neptune that sustained severe damage in Monday morning's fire. Two other vessels' damage was minor.

Firefighters aim water at one of the boats that caught fire at a Shark River marina in Neptune early Monday.
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NEPTUNE ? Whether it is a snowstorm, nor'-easter or hazardous spill, Harry Conover is well-versed in responding to dangerous situations.

But things got personal early Monday morning for Conover, the Monmouth County emergency management coordinator, when he lost two of his pleasure boats to a fast-moving, wind-blown fire that either destroyed or damaged four other vessels docked in the South Concourse marina on the Shark River.

A boat owned by Edward Kirschenbaum, chief of detectives for the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office, also was destroyed, police said.

"It's funny being on the other side of the fence," said a somber Conover, 56, as he surveyed the charred remains of one of his boats, docked at a condominium complex near Route 35. "Now I'm getting the help."

Nobody was injured in the fire, which broke out about 6:20 a.m. aboard the 21-foot Sea Swirl fishing boat owned by James Kenny of Wall, police said. The fire, aided by unexpectedly strong winds, quickly spread to five boats docked near Kenny's vessel.

Investigators said they are unsure what caused the fire, but they are labeling it accidental. The State Police Arson and Bomb Squad will continue to investigate.

Boat owners on Monday speculated the fire apparently was caused by some electrical or mechanical malfunction on Kenny's boat.

"We have nothing at this point to indicate anything of a suspicious manner," Lt. Harold Vliet of the State Police Marine Bureau said. "We have no indication it was anything other than a normal boat fire."

Conover's two twin-diesel boats ? a restored 31-foot 1967 Bertram and a 36-foot 1987 Runaway ? and Kirschenbaum's vessel, a 22-foot Mako, sustained the most extensive damage because they were just downwind from Kenny's vessel.

An unnamed 32-foot Carolina owned by Pat Armstrong of Neptune and a 32-foot Albemarle named Raging Bull, owned by John Aravecz of Freehold, sustained minor fire and smoke damage, authorities said.

Burning vessel adrift

As the fire reached Conover's 36-foot vessel, the flames melted the ignition wires, somehow starting the engine, police said. The burning vessel kicked into motion and moved into open water, going in circles. Coast Guard crews eventually responded, dousing the flames and pushing the charred boat onto a nearby shore.

Kirschenbaum, whose vessel Jo Holly sustained irreparable damage to its starboard side and interior controls, said he was amazed how quickly the fire spread. He said his boat was worth about $20,000.

"There's never a wind like that this time of year," he said.

Authorities said that the boats' hulls are made of fiberglass, which, once ignited, is difficult to extinguish. Firefighters from Neptune and Neptune City extinguished the blaze by about 7 a.m., Neptune Lt. Drew La France said.

Conover, who lives in Neptune City, said he started Monday like most days ? at the dock checking on his two boats, Knot N Emergency and Chicken Sam. He arrived at the marina about 5:50 a.m., stayed for several minutes and then left. Minutes later, he got a call from his son that the boats were on fire.

"Everything was normal," Conover said. "I checked the boats like I do every morning. I didn't see anything. I didn't smell anything."

Hospital visit

Conover, who wears a pacemaker, said he was overcome with anxiety when he heard his two boats, worth an estimated $250,000, were destroyed. He went to Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune for observation and was later released.

By Monday afternoon, he was back at the marina, helping prepare Chicken Sam, the boat which remained docked during the fire, for towing. Conover joined a large number of investigators, onlookers, boaters and news media personnel at the scene.

Andrew Deglman, 44, who lives in a condominium near the marina, said he saw the flames when he woke up. He and a neighbor ran over to the docks, but the flames were too intense for any recovery efforts.

"There was nothing we could do," said Deglman, who doesn't own a boat but rents out his slip in the marina. "In 20 minutes, I watched a half-million dollars worth of boats go up in flames."

Staff writer Bill Bowman contributed to this story
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