Florida Keys detectives are investigating the Coral Bay Marina fire that destroyed two boats and burned a third as arson and attempted insurance fraud, Monroe County’s sheriff said Wednesday.
And one of the three men suspected of setting ablaze the charter boat that triggered the fire is in critical condition in a Miami hospital with severe burns covering close to 40 percent of his body — and he will likely lose his feet and hands if he lives, Sheriff Rick Ramsay said on U.S. 1 Radio News in the Keys.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
He also left his wallet and ID at the scene in the process of shedding his flame-covered clothes, according to the sheriff.
Ramsay said that witnesses saw three men on the Double Agent, a 34-foot Glacier Bay catamaran dry-docked at the Upper Matecumbe Key marina around 12:45 a.m. Monday.
“Soon thereafter, there’s this large explosion, and the boat is completely engulfed in fire,” Ramsay said. “A guy jumps off the boat on fire. Another guy is trying to pat him out.”
The three men got into a pickup truck “and peel out of the parking lot heading northbound” on U.S. 1, Ramsay told news host Bill Becker.
“They don’t call police services, do not call the fire department. Don’t notify anybody that half the marina is on fire,” Ramsay said.
With the wounded man in the truck, the driver drove past Mariners Hospital in Tavernier, through Key Largo onto the 18 Mile Stretch of U.S. 1 that leads to Florida City, past Homestead Hospital, and stopped first at a house in South Miami-Dade to change clothes. Then, the men finally took the burned man to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.
“I’ve been told they’re going to remove his hands, And, they’re talking about removing his feet because they’re burned together,” Ramsay said. “He has burns to his front, groin area, feet, hands and legs. Just terrible.”
Police have not released the name of the 44-year-old man, and no arrests have been made yet.
About five hours later, one of the men called the sheriff’s office from Jackson to tell the agency about the fire, and that it started accidentally while they were washing the Double Agent.
“Their story was they were cleaning the boat at 12:45 in the morning, in the dark,” and that they “scrubbed the deck with gasoline and paint thinner,” Ramsay said.
They told cops one of the men lit a cigarette while standing on the back of the boat. He threw the match, and the wind blew it back on the vessel, causing it to explode, the men told detectives, Ramsay said.
Ramsay said in the radion interview that the Double Agent’s owner “has been trying to sell the boat for a long time, but wasn’t moving” despite him lowering the price.
The vessel’s owner is Nicholas Toby John, 21, of Homestead, sheriff’s office spokesman Adam Linhardt said Wednesday.
John could not be reached for comment. No one answered the phone Wednesday to the number provided for the Double Agent on its Facebook page. An email seeking comment also went unreturned.
Ramsay said it was likely the fumes, not the gasoline and other accelerants, that caused the boat to go up so quickly.
Investigators found gasoline on the front seat cushions. They also found a box of matches left behind the boat. Inside the truck, cops found three cans of charcoal lighter fluid, Ramsay said.
The other boats damaged in Monday’s fire were a 50-foot Sea Ray Express Cruiser named the Good Hair Day II, and a 45-foot double-hulled Corinthian pontoon boat, the Snorkel Express. Both boats were also dry docked. The Snorkel Express is one of the snorkeling tour boats based at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.