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Brothers save themselves by jumping into the water when their boat burst into flames

By Janice L. Habuda and Maki Becker NEWS STAFF REPORTERS
Updated: 07/30/08 12:01 PM

Flames and smoke pour from a 22-foot fiberglass boat after it exploded in Town of Tonawanda’s Mid River Marina on Tuesday. The two men on the boat jumped into the water but suffered second-degree burns.

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Two brothers setting out on a fishing trip suffered second-degree burns when their boat exploded into a ball of flames Tuesday afternoon as they were headed out of a Town of Tonawanda marina.

Christian Garlapow, 39, and his brother, Adam, 36, were taken by ambulance to Erie County Medical Center, where they were treated in the burn unit. They suffered burns to their arms, legs and chests, according to authorities at the scene.

Adam Garlapow, of Alden, is a science teacher in Batavia, and Christian Garlapow recently moved from Grand Island to Avon, Colo., where he is a ski instructor. He was back home on vacation when the accident happened.

Adam Garlapow’s wife, Rosie, who is 6 1/2 months’ pregnant, told The Buffalo News she had spoken to her husband just a couple of minutes before the terrifying accident.

The brothers had taken their father’s 22-foot fiberglass boat from Grand Island and were refueling at the Mid River Marina off River Road.

“He said, ‘We’re just fueling up. . . . We’ll see you in 15 minutes,’ ” she said.

The brothers were planning to bring their boat down to the Erie Basin Marina and meet Rosie Garlapow, who works downtown, for lunch. She was walking, on her way to pick up sandwiches for the three of them, when she noticed a message on her cell phone.

“Rosie, this is Adam,” her husband said. “We’re OK, but the boat exploded.”

At first, she thought it was a joke. Then he called back. Rosie Garlapow learned that her husband and his brother jumped into the water just as the fireball ripped through the boat.

“Apparently, that’s what saved their lives — that their instinct was so quick,” she said.

Family members said initial reports led them to fear the worst for the Garlapow brothers.

But the brothers were released from the hospital by evening.

“God must have been with them,” Rosie Garlapow said as the brothers were recuperating at her home. “We’re not religious people, but I think we’ll quickly become so.”

The fiery explosion stunned boaters enjoying the pleasant summer day on the upper Niagara.

“We were called by various boaters on the marine VHF distress frequency,” said acting Sgt. Martin Bronisz of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office’s Marine Unit, which is heading the investigation. “We were out [on] the water. You could see the black smoke . . . for miles.”

The boat was near the north end of the marina when the explosion occurred.

The vessel drifted back toward the docks, where bystanders sprayed the raging flames with a hose in a vain effort to extinguish the fire.

Firefighters soon arrived and got the blaze under control. The boat remained upside down in the water with charred debris floating nearby.

“At this point, it’s too early to determine the cause of [the explosion],” Bronisz said.

The boaters were experiencing some problems with the engine before leaving the dock, he said.

Rosie Garlapow said her husband mentioned a couple of weeks ago that he experienced some problems with his father’s boat, which was built in 1971, but nothing related to the motor or gas lines.

“It’s never had any issues like this before,” she said.

Several firefighters from Kenmore and the Town of Tonawanda, as well as the Coast Guard and U. S. Border Patrol, also responded to the scene.