The Navy, Coast Guard, and all the cities in the Hmpton Roads area responded to the fire. Photo: NSN

Norfolk Cruise Boat Carrying 89 Schoolchildren Catches Fire

A day on the water turned scary for a school group aboard the private cruise boat Spirit of Norfolk when it caught fire Tuesday. But thanks to some quick-thinking crew and emergency responders, everyone made it safely off the boat.

There were 106 passengers and crew aboard, including 89 schoolchildren, according to the boat’s operator City Cruises.

Spirit of Norfolk’s crew called for help just after noon on Tuesday, and mariners sprang into action. Naval Station Norfolk (NSN) responded with two tugboats and a competing Norfolk passenger cruise ship, the Victory Rover, also rushed to the scene.

City Cruises praised the vessel’s crew for employing their training, “acting swiftly and immediately” to bring more than 100 people safely off the boat. After most of the passengers were quickly evacuated, the boat was escorted back to NSN Pier 4, where firefighting efforts continued well into the evening.

“Vessel fires are extremely complicated. We cannot continue just to put water on the vessel or we risk the vessel either capsizing or sinking. So we’re actively working through a salvage and firefighting plan but we have to be very deliberate to make sure that we safeguard the environment as well as the vessel,” said Captain Jennifer Stockwell, Deputy Commander of Coast Guard Sector Virginia in a press conference Tuesday evening.

NSN also acknowledged the challenges of fighting the blaze. “The fire is deep-seeded, complex and very difficult to extinguish. We are doing everything we can to cool the hull and get water to the engine room where we believe it possibly started,” said Naval Station Norfolk Fire Chief Sickell.

Chief Sickell said both water and firefighting foam were being used to battle the fire.

The emergency response was notable for the extensive number of different agencies that worked together. In addition to NSN, the Coast Guard, Victory Rover, and Norfolk Fire-Rescue, the cities of Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Virginia Beach and Portsmouth were all involved.

Some noted the Navy’s decision to respond to a “civilian vessel” like Spirit of Norfolk. But Naval Station Norfolk’s Commanding Officer, Captain David Dees explains, “To us, it is not just a civilian ship. It was a vessel in need and it had 106 passengers that needed help. And that’s exactly what we all did today as a team.”

Said Capt. Stockwell, “We are exceptionally fortunate that we saved all the lives, in no small part thanks to the Navy … while we’re still combatting an active fire, we can say all lives were saved today.”

It’s too early to tell the extent of the damage to the boat.

Jolene Price-Thompson, General Manager for City Cruises, said in a statement, “The safety of our riders and crew is always our first priority as we continue to uphold our vessels with the vigorous safety and protocols in place.”

She promised the cruise boat would resume its dinner cruises and private excursions as soon as it’s safe to do so.

“We value our place and the tradition that the Spirit of Norfolk holds as a local landmark within the fabric of this great city,” Price-Thompson said.

-Meg Walburn Viviano