People leap to safety as Calif. party boat goes up in flames
Passengers fled the Grand Romance riverboat replica as it burned, before the Vallejo Fire Department brought the flames under control
By Amanda Bartlett
SFGate, San Francisco
VELLEJO, Calif. — Thick black smoke cascaded over Vallejo on Saturday afternoon as a three-story 19th-century replica riverboat known as the Grand Romance caught fire, sending people leaping into the water for safety.
The Vallejo Fire Department responded to reports of a possible blaze near the corner of Lemon and Derr streets at approximately 4:47 p.m. that afternoon and found “a large column of smoke” emanating through the air, firefighter Aaron Klauber told SFGATE. By that point, dispatchers received additional calls that the paddle-wheel riverboat docked on the Napa River was on fire and four people were trapped inside, prompting firefighters to upgrade the incident to a first alarm response.
Two people were able to escape on their own, while two others jumped into the water and were rescued by a passing civilian boat, Klauber said. None of the people who escaped the flames were on the scene by the time firefighters arrived, and the blaze was declared under control within about an hour.
“We briefly accessed the boat to check and confirm no one else was on board, and unfortunately it was just too unsafe to conduct a thorough investigation,” Klauber said, noting the vessel was “tilting and partially sunk,” with “heavy fire damage” on the second deck and smoke damage throughout. U.S. Coast Guard officials responded to assist in the search and verified there were no other people on board.
Formerly called the Petaluma Queen, the boat was built by captain and general manager Bill Barker and his late father Neal in Fort Bragg in 1993. It boasted a grand ballroom, red velvet stage and marble dance floor. Barker used the unique riverboat for dinner cruises and gambling along the Petaluma River, the Mercury News reported.
The boat’s name and offerings changed when Barker was unable to secure a city gambling permit from Petaluma and a patron fell from the boat and drowned, raising questions about the safety of the vessel, Petaluma 360 reported. Margaret Brown, 78, of Santa Rosa, was on board for a luncheon cruise when she opened the side door next to the galley and plunged a foot into the Petaluma River below. Barker attempted to perform CPR on Brown, and she was transported by sheriff’s helicopter to Petaluma Valley Hospital, where she was pronounced dead later that afternoon.
The tragedy didn’t spell the end for the storied vessel. Barker renamed the riverboat the Grand Romance, and sailed it to Long Beach in 2001, where it reportedly hosted a slew of murder mystery cruises and toga parties. But the city revoked the boat’s permit in 2018 due to “numerous health and safety issues,” the Press-Telegram reported at the time, noting Barker had also owned a 40-foot replica pirate sailboat that sank in the harbor the previous year.
Barker moved the Grand Romance back north to Vallejo in 2019, but never opened it up for business. The onset of the pandemic delayed his plans to work on the boat and replace its aging diesel engine, he told the Vallejo Sun earlier this week, adding that one caretaker had been living on the boat and he was surprised to learn that four people were on board when it caught fire. Barker told the Vallejo Sun he still hopes to restore the boat.
The cause of the fire remains undetermined, Klauber said.
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