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Wednesday marked one year since a fire broke out at a marina in Jackson County and killed eight people.
It happened at Jackson County Park in the middle of a cold January night. A small fire broke out aboard a houseboat that was one of 35 boats tied up just feet apart from each other along Dock B.
[Images from left to right] Yancy Roper, Amanda Foster and Annette Miles with her five children: 19-year-old Christopher Zane Long, 16-year-old Bryli Anniston Long, 10-year-old Traydon Dominic Miles, 9-year-old Kesston Damien Miles and 7-year-old Dezli Nicole Miles
Within minutes, the small, smoldering fire grew to a raging inferno.
"One of the scariest that I've faced so far," is how Lt. Landon Baker with the Scottsboro Fire Department remembers the night.
"We knew it was going to be bad when you got there,” Robert Shook with the Jackson County Rescue Squad said. "The sky was just orange."
Today, there's no evidence a dock was ever there. Except for a slab of concrete, all traces of Dock B are gone.
Someone left a flower-covered cross on the old electrical panel that serviced the dock. It's the only physical reminder of the tragedy that occurred in the early morning hours of Jan. 27, 2020.
Eight lives were lost there. One man lost his entire family, including his wife and five children.
Through the words of witnesses and investigators, we pieced together what happened, what led to the disaster at Dock B, and the lessons learned to hopefully prevent another tragedy like that from ever happening again.
'... Families are closer and love more ...'
Lake Guntersville is home to at least a dozen marinas and thousands of boats. Houseboats are popular there and provided a lifestyle that brought Joe Miles to Jackson County Park with his wife, Annette, and their five kids. They lived year-round aboard two houseboats tied up at the dock.
"Usually, families are closer and love more and enjoy life more when you're in a small home," father Joe Miles said. "Instead of our kids out in trouble, they were usually on a kayak or fishing. They enjoyed it."
The "Dixie Delight" was moored at the first covered slip on Dock B. Like all the live-aboard boats, it was connected to power and water by electrical lines and pipes that ran the length of the 420-foot wooden dock. By all accounts, it had not moved from its spot for at least 10 years.
WAAY 31 obtained a transcript of the interview the owner gave to investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board after the fire. He said about 12:30 a.m. he woke up to the sound of popping and smoke coming from behind the boat's electrical panel. He tried to put the fire out with a small fire extinguisher, and when that didn't work, he ran across the dock to a neighbor's boat for help.
But it was too late.
At 12:38 a.m., he called 911.
Scottsboro police arrived at 12:45 a.m.
Firefighters from Station Number 2, the closest to the marina, were right behind them.
"I don't think any of us expected to see what we saw when we arrived," Lt. Baker with Scottsboro Fire said.
Baker, a 14-year veteran of the fire department, said the call came in from dispatch as "a boat on fire."
"Unreal, when we saw what we were fixing to be faced with when we pulled up to the scene,” he said. "Because we realized at that point, we realized it wasn't a boat on fire. It was the whole dock."
In the minutes before firefighters arrived, the owner of the "Dixie Delight" ran to Joe Miles' boat to wake him up. Together, they tried to push the burning boat away from the dock, but they couldn't untie it. After so many years, the knots were too tight.
By now, the fire was quickly engulfing the boat.
Within seconds, the fire jumped to the boat next to it, and then, the boat across from it.
At that point, almost 20 people, including the Miles family, were out of their boats and on the dock.
Annette Miles, along with another woman, Amanda Foster, were trying to keep the kids calm. But their situation was quickly becoming desperate as the fire now completely blocked their path to shore.
'... It almost looked like daylight over there'
Scottsboro Fire Chief Gene Necklaus got the alert at home that something big was happening at Jackson County Park marina. While racing to the scene, his worst fears were confirmed, still miles away.
"I mean, it was, it almost looked like daylight over there,” Necklaus said. “I've seen a lot of things and scared myself a few times in 20-something years, but that, that's one that you just ... I couldn't even fathom something of that nature until it happened."
Not only were survivors unable to get off the dock, firefighters were all but powerless to put it out.
"The fire origination, being on the inland side, really hampered our access, really hampered our ability to get where we needed to be,” Necklaus said.
The wooden construction of Dock B fueled the fire. As it burned, it became more unstable and dangerous. The fire consumed boat after boat, feeding on their fiberglass shells and the fuel and furnishings inside them.
"It's spreading from boat to boat pretty quick, and each time it does that, the heat factor just increases exponentially," Necklaus said.
By now, fire crews from neighboring communities were on the way, along with the only fire boat nearby in Guntersville, but it wouldn't make it in time.
According to witnesses, the entire 420-foot dock and all 35 boats were on fire within 15 minutes of the first call for help. The 17 trapped and panicked survivors had no time to lose.
One man used a kayak to paddle to shore. Another says he suggested they all jump in the water and swim to safety, but Joe Miles wouldn't risk his kids to the icy, cold water.
"What I told them to start with is get all the kids, get everyone out of their boats to the end of the dock and hoping maybe that'd give us time for the fire departments to help," Miles said.
The 16 left quickly cut loose two large boats, climbed aboard and pushed them out. They used anything at hand, including folding chairs and cleaning brushes, to paddle a short distance into the lake. For a moment, they were safe, but only for a moment.
Back on the burning dock, a series of events was playing out that would ultimately claim many of them.
Exhausted survivors couldn't escape
"I remember every single thing about that night," Jackson County Emergency Management Agency Director Paul Smith said.
Smith was called because of the threat of hazardous material in the water. He pulled up on a hellish scene.
"Propane tanks exploding, shooting up in the air like Roman candles, boats drifting out...And you'd notice, the boats that were on fire and drifting out, almost like a magnet, they'd drift out and they'd come together," he said.
The two boats carrying exhausted survivors couldn't escape, either.
"And when the fire came through to the end of the dock, it was just like a vacuum. It...It pulled the boat in," Miles remembered.
WAAY 31 Chief Meteorologist Kate McKenna explained that a fire as large as the one at Dock B actually creates its own wind environment. As the heat from the fire rises, it sets up a convective current, which pulls in air from the surrounding area. It would easily be enough force to move a boat floating freely on the water.
Then, unoccupied boats, now on fire, began drifting from the dock. One hit the vessel containing the four men.
A survivor, Greg Sanderson, said the boat that hit them was fully engulfed.
All four men jumped overboard into the 41-degree water, which was also now littered with floating, burning debris.
From the other boat, Joe Miles could see more boats on fire floating toward them. In a heroic effort to save his family, he jumped into the water and tried to push the burning boats away. He was badly burned in the process, and it was no use.
Another burning boat collided with the boat loaded with his loved ones and the others. In seconds, that boat, too, was on fire.
Everyone took cover in the cabin.
One man managed to break open the forward hatch to escape onto the deck and jump into the water. Several others followed an older couple and the owner of the boat where the fire started. Read more here.
But Joe Miles' family was trapped, and he was helpless to save them.
"And when we came back up, I heard my family screaming for me to help them. There wasn't time," he said.
His wife of 13 years perished in the fire, along with their five children.
"Christopher Zane Long was 19. He was autistic, brain tumors, he had a lot of problems. And then Brylie Anniston Long was my daughter...and then Traydon Dominic, he was 10. And Kesston Damian was my nine-year-old. And then I had a pretty little daughter...She was seven. Her name was Dezli Nicole Miles," he said.
Amanda Foster, the other woman who had tried to comfort the children, also died on that boat. Her stepsister told us she died a hero.
"How easy it would have been for her to jump off. I mean, she was a healthy individual. She could have jumped off and swam across and saved herself, but she didn't. She would not leave those kids, and that's the one thing that keeps getting told to me over and over, she would not leave those kids," Monica Pascale-Howard said. Read more here.
'There's no choice'
We also spoke with the first responders who jumped in to save those still in the water. They explained that in the midst of all the chaos, some things actually worked in their favor as they rushed to save lives.
"At that point, he started yelling at me for help. ‘Help me! Help me!’” Lt. Baker said.
A fundamental foundation of first responder training is the safety of the responders. Chief Necklaus says that applies whether you're driving an engine, running into a burning building or jumping into 41-degree water.
"You have to protect the responder, because if you don't, then you compound the problem. You take what was one emergency, or someone else's emergency, and now you've added to it," he said.
Lt. Baker got permission from his battalion chief to go into the icy water, a potentially life-threatening decision.
"And at that point, when someone's yelling at you for help, there's no choice," he said.
He stripped off his equipment, grabbed a life jacket, tied a rope around his waist and jumped in.
"I just remember getting to him and told him to grab ahold of the life jacket. And then, as soon as I knew he had ahold of it and I had it wrapped around my arm, I hollered for my firefighter to start pulling the rope and pull us back in," Baker said.
Running to help
So many first responders sprang into action that night.
Robert Shook owns Scottsboro Gun and Pawn. Saving lives? Well, he does that in his spare time.
Shook is a 40-year volunteer with the Jackson County Rescue Squad.
Sgt. Brian Eakin is a near 20-year veteran with Scottsboro police. He's worked with Shook many times, from plucking stranded hikers out of the Walls of Jericho, to boating accidents on Lake Guntersville.
That night, Eakin was on patrol and received a call of a break-in at Shook's Pawn Shop. Shook says that was the first of many things that actually went right that night. It was a false alarm, but he still went down to meet Eakin at the shop and check it out.
"You know, normally, I put on a pair of pajamas or something like that. And I got dressed. Why did I get dressed?" Shook recalled.
Both men believe God had a hand in helping them help others that night. While at the store, the call came over Eakin's radio that Dock B at Jackson County Park marina was on fire.
Survivors were in the water and they needed a boat, fast.
The boat they needed was at Shook's rescue squad building, and because he and Eakin were already together, precious life-saving minutes were saved.
"We knew what we had to do. We came over here, we got a truck, went over to the next building and got a boat and took off and backed it in the water," Eakin said.
It took them less than nine minutes. On the way to the dock, Shook said a prayer, fearing a family he knew who called the marina home might be in danger.
"You know, when the alarm went off and we were...he said it was at the park...I said ‘I hope it's not Joe's boat,' and it was Joe's boat," Shook said.
Together, Shook and Eakin searched for survivors among the burning wreckage.
"We knew it was going to be bad when you got there," Shook said. "But it was pretty frightening."
Frightening hardly begins to describe it.
One survivor, a woman, was hanging on to the back of a burning boat. She yelled that she couldn't swim.
"We finally convinced her to let go, just enough that Robert was able to make a pass-by and, as you can see by the buoy here, I mean we got close enough to that boat that we burnt the buoy off the side of the boat," Eakin said.
Dodging the burning debris, one by one, they pulled almost all of them to safety, including Joe Miles. Shook remembers seeing him in the spotlight, struggling to stay above the surface. He didn't know it, but Joe had just about given up.
"I recognized him. He didn't have his glasses on, so he couldn't recognize me, but he knew the voice," Shook said.
"I knew I was going to die, probably,” Miles said. "Robert said my whole body had done went under. He reached down and pulled me up, and I remember him calling me by name, but I couldn't tell who he was.”
"When we got to Joe, all we could see was his face sticking out of the water. He said, 'I heard you call my name,' and I reached in and got him," Shook said.
'... You think about those poor kids...'
The memories and emotions for survivors and first responders are still fresh, even a year later. Many of the witnesses and survivors we contacted just couldn't talk to us on camera, including Joe Miles, who lost the most that night. That's why you're hearing from him over the phone.
"It's very heart-wrenching,” Shook said. “I mean, you think about those poor kids."
"My hero, number one, is Robert Shook. But every one of them is great people and done all they could," Miles said. "A lot of them beat themselves up, but there is none of them could've done any more than what they did."
Shook thinks about the one drowning victim that night, the eighth victim, Yancy Roper, last seen jumping off one of the boats with his brother, Tommy Jones, and two other men. His brother talked to WAAY 31 last year.
"Yancy had a big heart. He loved everybody. He worked hard and he cared. He really did. He actually helped get the children on the boat, and we pushed the boat out, and then, we went and pushed our boat out," Jones said. Read more here.
Almost every agency that responded that night has made significant changes over the past year in order to respond to worst-case scenario situations like this.
For most if not all of these first responders, the disaster at Dock B was the worst experience of their professional lives. They see it when they close their eyes. They feel it when they hug their kids.
"It was more than any of us wanted to see that day,” EMA Director Paul Smith said.
What helps them, the survivors, and this small community get through this is believing that some good will come out of it. There are definite lessons learned, and changes have already been made.
"That's the nature of this work, unfortunately," Necklaus said. “A lot of times, it's a reactive service, and it takes a significant event to make you better for the next one, and to prevent the next one."
Fires are going to happen at marinas again. The NTSB's lead investigator in the case said on average, the agency is called to one or two marina accidents per year. He says even when marinas do everything right, all it takes is a lightning strike or unattended cigarette to start a tragic sequence of events.
"These marinas aren't facilities that are unique to Scottsboro, Alabama, or even the South,” Bart Barnum said. “They're up and down the East and West Coast. There's thousands of these across the country, and this could have happened anywhere."
But Necklaus says there are ways to minimize the impact.
The Scottsboro Fire Department now has its own fire boat. Now, they can fight fires where they couldn't before.
"We have it if we need it, so that's what it's about," Necklaus said.
Just a few miles upstream is the city of Scottsboro's marina at Goose Pond. Three hundred boats are moored there, many of them with year-round occupants.
Safety features were built into these docks, and Necklaus wants to see them retrofitted at all docks.
There is no wood there, just metal and concrete. Above, what look like skylights are actually burn-out panels. If a boat were to catch on fire, the panels are designed to melt away quickly to allow the heat to escape.
Other changes were made at Goose Pond after the fire at Jackson County Park. Park manager Stephen Clark showed us.
"We added more safety equipment to the docks. We added life rings. We added bells, sound-signaling devices in the event of an emergency. We have sirens up on shore here that we can send off if we need to. Just something to alert people if something's going on; wake people up," Clark said.
They also require that all boats are fully operational.
"If something happens and the owner is down here, they can start that boat up, cut the lines or untie the boat, and back that boat out of the slip. And we do require that. And that was one of the big issues at [Jackson] County Park," Clark said.
EMA Director Paul Smith supervised the removal of the charred wreckage of Dock B's boats. What he saw was shocking.
"They absolutely need to run. There were boats that came out of that water...they may have had running motors, but there were no propellers," Smith said.
The lead investigator told WAAY 31 because of a frustrating lack of evidence due to the fire, they relied heavily on witness statements to reach their conclusions. But in their report, they noted "contributing to the severity of the fire and loss of life were the county and marina's limited fire safety practices."
Alabama's fire codes for covered docks and marinas were not applicable to Dock B, which was built before those codes were adopted. The dock was inspected periodically and passed, most recently in 2016.
The NTSB report went on to say "the Jackson County Park marina did not observe several existing safety best practices and guidelines, such as annual electrical inspections, employee fire training, biannual fire drills and a pre-fire plan."
"Like many accidents we investigate, it's not a single factor that ultimately causes the fatalities or the ultimate tragedy. It's a sequence of smaller accidents that, left unnoticed, can exacerbate the problem," Barnum said.
In his witness statement to investigators a year ago, Jackson County Park Manager Carl Barnes told federal investigators "We're going to implement a fire protection plan. I'm going to go personally and make sure their boats run." But the marina's website still only states that boats need to be "presentable."
"We're going to make sure they have (life vests), and if they don't have it, then they don't stay here," Barnes said.
We tried asking him about whether any of his plans had been implemented. He refused to talk to us.
Dock B had minimal safety equipment, no alert system or burn-out panels in the roof.
Chief Necklaus is taking those lessons to heart.
"Would any of them have made a difference in January? I don't know. But all we can do now is what we think is the best to try and stop this from ever happening again," he said.
'You better love your kids...'
The disaster at Dock B was an almost unbelievable and tragic series of events. The eight people who died leave a lasting scar on this small town.
EMA Director Paul Smith says the best we can do is see that their lives were not lost in vain.
"Unfortunately, you have to have tragedy at some point for there to be adjustments in your thinking, some different ways to do things, some thinking outside the box. Sometimes, it takes that. There's never been a point in human history when we haven't learned from something we've all experienced," he said.
It’s a sentiment echoed by the NTSB's marine safety director.
"We learn from these accidents and we use them to build regulations that are smart and responsive," Morgan Turrell said.
Joe Miles wants you take something much more personal away from his unimaginable loss. Don't take anything for granted, especially those you love.
"But I just hope people see that they're not promised tomorrow. You better love your kids and enjoy life with your family while you got it...I enjoyed my family."