NORFOLK, Va. — UPDATE: Coast Guard officials confirmed that as of 9:58 a.m. on June 11, the fire had been extinguished. Now, towing efforts are underway.
A fire broke out on the iconic Spirit of Norfolk cruise yacht Tuesday afternoon with over 100 passengers on board.
Officials with Naval Station Norfolk said the fire was reported around 12:08 p.m., as the boat was located outside the Port Security Barrier off of Naval Station Norfolk’s Pier 4.
Images sent to 13News Now showed smoke and flames coming from a window on its port side.
Naval Station Norfolk Fire Chief Tony Sickell said they are still investigating the cause of the fire, but believe it started in the engine room.
Mike Rozanski was on board The Spirit of Norfolk Tuesday afternoon with his wife and son Matthew. They were there celebrating Matthew’s graduation from kindergarten, along with 90 other students from Sunny Brook Day School.
"Everybody was having a great time. It started out with food, kids were on the dance floor," he said.
The annual tradition took a dangerous turn when smoke began filling the first floor of the ship.
He said staff moved all 108 people to the open-top deck before having to move them back downstairs.
"Smoke really started roaring to the top deck and the ventilation up there. It was tough to breathe," said Rozanski.
He said the Victory Rover was nearby, along with two U.S. Navy tugboats, which answered their distress call.
They were able to rescue everyone and move them onto the Rover.
"Parents were handing kids over the railing of the boat and then climbing over," Rozanski said.
Two crew members remained on board as the Spirit of Norfolk was then towed to NSN's Pier 4 to continue with firefighting efforts.
The crew members were then safely evacuated from the Spirit of Norfolk while the Victory Rover returned the passengers to Town Point Park, which is where the Spirit of Norfolk had earlier departed.
A spokesperson for City Experiences, the company that operates the cruise yacht, confirmed to 13News Now that a school group of 89 guests were on board.
Navy fire and EMS units were the first on scene.
Navy officials said NSN Port Operations tugs boats and NSN’s Fire and Emergency Services are aiding with firefighting efforts.
During a press conference at Naval Station Norfolk, Installation Fire Chief Tony Sickell said putting out the fire was proving to be difficult.
"It’s very deep-seated, very complex and very difficult to extinguish," Sickell said.
As of 11:00 p.m. Tuesday, the Spirit of Norfolk had been on fire for 11 hours.
"Vessel fires are extremely complicated, we cannot continue to just put water on the vessel or we risk the... the risk of either capsizing the vessel or sinking," said Captain Jennifer Stockwell, Deputy Commander Coast Guard Sector Virginia.
Sickell said until the fire is out, they can't get on board to assess the damage.
The Spirit of Norfolk is a staple on the Elizabeth River, sailing there for the last 45 years. Now, it’s unclear when or if it will sail again.
But for Rozanski, he said he’s just glad everyone is okay.
"We were able to make it home here, to land, safely," he said.
Spirit of Norfolk fire, June 7, 2022
Captain Samson Stevens with the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Virginia said the fire exceeded the firefighting capabilities onboard.
He also said the Spirit of Norfolk just got the seal of approval during its annual inspection last month.
In a statement, officials from Sunny Brook Day School said the safety of their students and staff is their number one priority and they are glad everyone is okay.
The Navy said none of its ships or vessels are docked at Pier 4 and the Spirit of Norfolk's fire is no threat to Navy assets.
Officials ask that people remain clear of the waterfront area as crews continue to work to extinguish the fire.
Naval Station Norfolk Commanding Officer Capt. David Dee said he credits everyone getting off safely to the quick response of their community partners.
"We were incredibly fortunate today, but most of that happened due to incredible training and response by a joint team."