NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A fire broke out on board the Spirit of Norfolk cruise yacht on Tuesday afternoon with more than 100 passengers aboard at the time, most of them local elementary school students.

And while flames appeared to be kept down in the afternoon, the fire kicked back up on Tuesday night, with heavy smoke and flames coming from the vessel as it was docked at Naval Station Norfolk.

The Spirit of Norfolk on fire the night of June 7, 2022 (Courtesy – WAVY Viewer)

Navy officials said early Wednesday that the fire was slowly burning itself out, but smoke intensified later Wednesday morning and at the last report Wednesday nigh it was still smoldering.

Here’s a photo of the ship from just before 7 a.m. Wednesday from the Navy:

The Spirit of Norfolk just before 7 a.m. on Wednesday (Courtesy of U.S. Navy)

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There was heavy black smoke coming from the Spirit as of 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, a video from WAVY view Matt Pursley showed. Lighter smoke was coming from the vessel just after noon, WAVY’s Andy Fox reported.

In an update, Wednesday afternoon, the Coast Guard said the Spirit is considered too unstable for crews to enter, but exterior firefighting measures would continue. Salvage contractors were developing a plan to safely enter the ship despite the instability.

The Coast Guard is being assisted in the operation by Naval Station Norfolk, City Cruises and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management/Department of Environmental Quality, as well as the City of Norfolk, Port of Virginia and NOAA.

There was no pollution as of Wednesday evening, but the area is being continuously monitored. 

Coast Guard officials say the ship is currently “smoldering” and crews are still on site in the event the fire reignites. Officials plan to hold a press conference about the fire at 11 a.m. on Thursday.

Norfolk Fire and Rescue confirmed the fire was reported shortly after noon on Tuesday. The City of Norfolk said the Coast Guard called 911 at 12:10 p.m. about a fire on the Spirit of Norfolk, which was in the water near Pier 3 at Naval Station Norfolk.

Hampton, Portsmouth and Norfolk fire departments all responded.

Naval Station Norfolk confirmed its tug boats and emergency services also aided in the firefighting efforts.

Norfolk spokesperson Stephanie Ramsey said there were more than 100 people on board at the time of the fire and no injuries have been reported, she said.

The passengers were all moved from the Spirit of Norfolk to the Victory Rover, which returned them to the dock at Town Point Park. The Spirit of Norfolk was towed to Pier 4 with its two crew members on board, the Navy said. Those crew members disembarked upon arrival.

There were two groups of students on board: a group of preschoolers from Virginia Beach, and 5th graders from Newport News, a Spirit of Norfolk staff member confirmed to WAVY.

It is a field trip elementary school student, Grace Telfare told 10 On Your Side she will never forget. 

“It was stinky, and a bunch of smoke, and then we had to go to the other part of the boat, and then get on another boat, which was also scary because I thought I was going to fall.”

Parent chaperone Jason Sleeth was playing foosball on deck when he smelled something burning. He looked over the side and saw flames. He said the crew did a great job of herding the groups and getting them all into lifejackets.

“I figured it would be a little chaotic, but they were very brave and listened well. There were a few tears, but overall they did a really good,” he said. 

The fire is still active, in the Spirit of Norfolk engine room. The Navy said there is no threat to the vessels docked at Pier 4, but personnel have been asked to remain clear of the waterfront area.

Chopper 10 flew above the Spirit of Norfolk shortly before 1 p.m. Tuesday. It was out in the Elizabeth River near Naval Station Norfolk. Video from Chopper 10 showed several tugs surrounding the boat. One of the tugs was actively spraying water on it. Smoke could be seen coming from the back left of the Spirit of Norfolk.

Several WAVY viewers reached out about the fire Tuesday and provided images from both on board the Spirit of Norfolk and from shore. You can view those images in the gallery below.

As of 6 p.m. Tuesday, Fire Chief Tony Sickell with Naval Station Norfolk said the fire was still ongoing as the fire vessel fire is “extremely complicated” and putting too much water on the boat could capsize it.

Sickell along with Captain David Dees, Naval Station Norfolk Commanding Officer, and representatives from
Naval Station Norfolk Fire and Emergency Services and Norfolk Fire and Rescue held a press conference on Pier 4 Tuesday evening to discuss the firefighting efforts.

Watch the press conference below:

The Spirit of Norfolk offers dinner cruises and private group events. It was built in 1992 by Services Marine Industries and is currently owned by California-based Hornblower Group. Its capacity is 372.

10 On Your Side is working to learn more. Check back for updates.