Crews recover sunken houseboat

February 2009 News Dannette M. Watt

ALTON - It took about two days to recover fully a houseboat that caught fire and sank at the Alton Marina last week.

"We spent six hours digging through eight or ten inches of ice yesterday," said Jeremy Fowler, the marina's harbormaster. Diver Pat Riley of Pat Riley Marine Services entered the water about 9:30 a.m. Saturday and the boat was finally raised just above the water around 12:30 p.m.

"He had to find a good hitching point on the boat and then we had to lift it with air bags," Fowler said. Excess water had to be pumped out of the boat before the 120-ton crane on site from Missouri Crane could carry it over to a waiting trailer.

The houseboat was one of three boats destroyed or damaged in a fire Jan. 23. The cause of the fire is still under investigation. The houseboat's owner, Layne Gibson, was not on hand to witness its resurrection.

"Nothing has been ruled out, but we don't believe it to be suspicious," Assistant Chief Brad Sweetman of the Alton Fire Department said. Investigators will be digging through the boat's debris in an attempt to determine the cause.

Karen Baker-Brncic and the owners of the other two boats had nothing but praise for the firefighters.

"The fire department did a fabulous job," Baker-Brncic said. "They responded quickly. Fortunately, the wind was in our favor or it could have been much worse."

In addition to the three boats, Dock F, on the middle, north end of the marina, was damaged. The damage to the dock and boats totaled about $345,000, according to the Alton Fire Department.

Fowler said the fire was identified within a few minutes after it began and everyone involved in fighting it knew what to do.

"The fire department is prepared," Fowler said. "They train twice a year here and we store some of their equipment."

Cheryl Rauschkolb watched the work from the marina's parking lot. She and her husband, Danny, a sergeant with the Alton Police Department, own Never Satisfied, a Sea Ray 290 cabin cruiser that sustained $20,000 to $30,000 in damage to the starboard side of its hull.

"It's heartbreaking. It's our second home. We had planned to sleep on the boat that night as we often do when we have a function to go to at night. We moved down from Grafton and if something like this had to happen, it couldn't have happened at a better marina. We couldn't have asked for a better fire department," Rauschkolb said.

She said they were anxious to find out what caused the fire and they planned to take the cruiser to Farmer's Fiberglass in Roxana for repairs.

Cher Manino owns Stingray 2, the other boat that was destroyed.

"It's totaled," Cher Manino said. "I'm overwhelmed right now. It was our weekend condo and we've spent a lot of time here the last six years. It isn't just the boat that's gone but everything we had in it - pictures, stuff from our kids. We had a $4,000 stereo system. It was our way of life."

Thankfully, she added, no one was hurt.

Manino, who lives in Florissant, Mo., with her husband, Bud, said the 30-foot express cruiser was named after an original 1969 Corvette they own and cost about $60,000 when they bought it.

"When the marina called me and told me about the fire and that I should come and view the damage, I thought it would be minor. The marina has been very accommodating in helping us get through this," Manino said.

Baker-Brncic said the houseboat was suspended over the walkway leading to the boat slips about 2 p.m. to enable Sweetman and other investigators to sort through the debris. She said the boat was finally lifted onto a trailer, where it was to remain overnight before being transported out.

"The fire chief released it at 3:30 and gave the OK for it to stay on the marina property overnight," Baker-Brncic said.

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