“It was an immediate jump that saved our lives:” family recounts escape from burning boat on Smith Mountain Lake

Published: Jun. 26, 2020 at 11:43 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) -It started with a bang. In more than a decade boating Smith Mountain lake, Lisa Newell says she’s never heard anything like it.

“It sounded like a firearm, really,” said Newell.

The Boones Mill grandmother was out on the water Wednesday, enjoying an afternoon of boating with her husband Hayden, grandson Aven and Aven’s best friend Logan. The group was motoring near Bridgewater when they heard the first explosion, and saw a nearly 50 pound board fly off the boat’s stern. “And as I turned around, I saw just a short fire,” said Newell. “And then, within moments, I reached for the fire extinguisher, but it went from six inches to two feet tall immediately.”

Newell says she realized the boat was a lost cause, and yelled for everyone to jump “because you could hear the fire, and you could smell it.”

“I mean it was like an inferno, it just kept getting bigger and bigger,” said Lynne Fye, who was boating nearby. Fye turned her boat toward the flames, and rushed in to help.

“You could feel the heat coming off of the boat,” she said.

One of Fye’s passengers pulled Hayden out of the water. Other boaters nearby picked up the rest of the group within moments.

“These are accidents. You don’t know when they’re going to happen,” said Smith Mountain Lake Volunteer Fire Chief Todd Ohlerich.

Ohlerich helped battle the blaze Wednesday, and says boat fires like this are rare, but not impossible.

“That’s the reason. The reason we keep preaching to wear life jackets out on the water, especially the kids, is cause you don’t know when this is going to happen,” he said.

After being pulled from the water Wednesday, Newell and the rest of the group were passed off to a Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries boat, who took them to shore. All four escaped without injuries.

The boat, meanwhile, continued to burn. At one point, another good Samaritan had to fling a grappling hook on board, and tow the flaming wreck further away from a wooden dock. Fire crews were able to extinguish the blaze, and have determined the cause of the fire was engine trouble.

Safe at home Friday evening, Lisa Newell says she’s thankful for a lot of things. She’s thankful for a community that came together to help her. She’s thankful for the first responders who rushed to the scene. But perhaps most of all, she says she’s thankful that she and the rest of her family and friends were prepared, and wearing life jackets, when disaster struck.

“It was an immediate jump that saved our lives,” she said.

Copyright 2020 WDBJ. All rights reserved.

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