All day long, they came to Essex to visit lost friends -- their boats.
But yesterday -- a day after a fast-burning fire destroyed 80 pleasure boats and speedboats and damaged 20 others at Anderson Bros. Boatel and Boat Sales -- boat owners were being kept off the site because of safety concerns, as fire and police investigators combed the scene.
"Like most sailors, I can bounce back from this, but I'd like to see how much damage was done to my boat," said Bob Mann, one of the mourners outside the boatyard fence on Holly Neck Road.
Inside the four-story boat rack, the middle section sat bowed and charred by the blaze, believed to have been started by a round fired from a flare gun. Many of the craft were melted by the intense heat created by the boats' burning fiberglass material.
Mann, who purchased his 23-foot cabin cruiser in October, recalled how he and his family enjoyed cruising Baltimore County's 173-mile shoreline, visiting the Inner Harbor and anchoring at Hart-Miller Islands on lazy summer weekends with other boaters.
"It's aggravating, because the boatyard owners won't let us in," he said. "And they didn't notify me. I heard about the fire on the radio Monday morning."
The blaze caused at least $1.5 million in damage, a Baltimore County Fire Department official said. All of the boats were insured, according to boat owners, and no one was injured.
A man who allegedly discharged the flare gun was being questioned yesterday, as were a number of witnesses. The man was not identified, and officials would not say whether the flare gun, varieties of which are used to signal for help, was found.
Officials said that information gleaned from the interviews and evidence found at the boatyard will be turned over to county prosecutors for possible prosecution.
"What's critical right now is intent," Battalion Chief Mark F. Hubbard said. "Was firing the flare gun intentional or accidental?"
Representatives of Anderson's refused to comment yesterday. Charles Anderson, the owner, was out of town.
The fire sparked anew protest against the boatels -- found in boatyards around the Eastside -- by residents who complained they are community eyesores and are dangerous.
More than 90 marinas are in Baltimore County, according to the Department of Environment and Resource Management. More than 7,000 boats are docked on Middle River. To pump up a sagging economy on the Eastside, county leaders have designated the expansive waterfront for possible development, including a mini-Harborplace on Dark Head Cove near Martin State Airport. A 1994 study by the Marine Trades Association said an estimated $130 million a year in business is generated in eastern Baltimore County by water-related businesses and visiting boaters.
Residents, such as Al Clasing, an official with Back River Neck Peninsula Community Association, said yesterday that residents tried to block the first section of Anderson's boatel in 1989.
"We all appreciate the importance of the water and the business it brings to the county but that first boat rack was unsightly and looked like an unfinished building," said Clasing. "That was the two-story stage; now it's four levels, and it's an unwelcome addition to our community."
Phillip Edwards, president of Bowleys Quarters Improvement Association, said his neighbors fought a similar boat storage area at Chesapeake Yachting Center on Frog Mortar Creek.
"We had environmental concerns because of the large influx of boats at a creek's headwaters, and it plain looked ugly," Edwards said. "We fought it five or six years, and they have taken some steps to build a berm and reduce the lighting but it's there."
For Ken Johnson, who lives across from the Anderson boatyard with his family, Sunday's fire was "our worst nightmare come true."
"I was at work, so my wife grabbed everything she could and evacuated, as did our next-door neighbors," Johnson said. "We tried fighting this boatel in Towson and Annapolis, but they built it anyway."
Hubbard, the Fire Department spokesman, said some indoor boatels are equipped with sprinkler systems but such systems for outdoor boat racks would not work because of cold weather freezing the pipes or wind.
Hubbard said boat storage yards are inspected annually by the Fire Department, and Anderson's passed inspection last year.
He said boats dry-docked in county boatels are required to have battery switches and fuel valves off. No restrictions are placed on fuel stored in the boat's tank, although officials acknowledged that fuel and vapors accelerated the spread of the flames.
While insurance was mandatory for all boats stored at the boatel, that was little solace to Richard Gebhey, who lost a 23-foot cabin cruiser.
"It sort of hurts because something like this has never happened to me before," Gebhey said. "We had a lot of fun on it. You can bet with the insurance money we'll get a new one."
Pub Date: 8/05/97