PORT McNEILL—A local family lost both its boat and its home in a single, devastating explosion in the harbour earlier this month.
For a few terrifying moments after the blast, as Cyndi Browne watched debris rain down around the boat bearing her husband Conrad and son, Benton, she thought she had lost much more.
“I knew for certain they had died,” Cyndi said this week, the first time since the Aug. 5 explosion at the Port McNeill fuel dock she has felt comfortable sharing her thoughts publicly. “When I got to the dock and saw someone carrying Benton and saw Conrad on the dock and knew they were alive, I just collapsed.”
She couldn’t stay down for long. Conrad and Benton were alive, but had suffered injuries that required they be flown to hospital in Victoria. Conrad Browne’s injuries were particularly severe, involving burns to 30 per cent of his body and multiple shards of glass imbedded in his leg and foot.
He spent two days in an induced coma in intensive care while doctors monitored his lungs to ensure they didn’t fail.
After four days in ICU, Conrad was transferred to the burn unit, where he spent another week undergoing treatment.
“The firemen in Victoria have a burn fund, and they have a house we could stay in,” said Cyndi. “After Conrad was released from the burn unit, we stayed there for another three days, where I did his bandage changes every day.”
The family returned to Port McNeill last week, with Conrad making strides in his recovery that have left even his doctors amazed.
Conrad returned to work this week at his job as economic development director for the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw bands, and Benton has resumed riding his bike with friends over the final days of summer vacation and counting the days to the North Island Eagles rep hockey tryouts.
But while the physical injuries are healing nicely, Cyndi said the emotional pain of the void left by the loss of their 50-foot wood boat, the Thunderbird, will take much longer to fade.
“We have a trailer (in Port McNeill), she said. “But that’s just a place we stay. Our boat was our home.”
The explosion, following an idyllic, weeklong tour through the Burdwood Island group, Simoom Sound and Echo Bay, cost the Brownes most of their possessions.
And neither the Thunderbird nor its furnishings were insured.
Friends of the family have established a Facebook page — Browne’s Family Relief Fund — to share information and donations. Last weekend, staff at Marketplace IGA teamed with friends for a fund-raising barbecue and car wash.
“I can’t believe how many people have stepped up to help us,” Cyndi said. “Just (Monday) we were given money from the barbecue and I went and paid a couple of bills I wasn’t sure how we were going to pay. It was so nice not to have to worry. We’ve had so many people offering help I couldn’t possibly list them all.
“People I don’t even know are doing things for me.”
Last Saturday, Cyndi posted a long, cathartic letter on the Facebook relief fund page, recapping the loss of the Thunderbird and irreplaceable possessions it contained and sharing what the vessel meant to her.
“It wasn’t just a boat,” she wrote. “It was a way of life, years of sacrifice, hard work, and my future all rolled into one. It was my home, and my family, and what we had hoped to be our legacy for our children.”
It all went up on a sunny afternoon in Port McNeill, just after the return from the Burdwoods.
Cyndi and Conrad Browne had a chance to share their respective stories of the day while he was in hospital.
While Conrad and Benton tied up at the fuel dock to top off the tank, Cyndi motored their skiff over to their moorage to prepare to catch lines and help tie up.
En route, she heard the loud explosion that stunned many in the lower downtown core and turned to see smoke and debris from the boat sailing high in the air.
“Is that my family?” she recalls crying to other shocked boaters nearby, before turning her boat and racing back to the quickly sinking Thunderbird.
After fueling, Conrad turned on the engine room blowers and fired up the first engine while Benton chatted with him through a porthole above. When he fired the second engine, it triggered the explosion that RCMP investigators later determined came from a propane leak from a tank on the deck above.
Stunned and cut by flying glass, Conrad did not actually suffer burns until a well-meaning boater, tied up in front of the Thunderbird, turned a fire extinguisher on the flames and blew burning gas onto him.
Conrad leaped into the water to extinguish himself, crawled onto the dock, then realized Benton was not there and jumped back to the water-covered deck to find him.
Hearing a noise under some floating debris, he pulled the boy out and literally threw him to Steve Jackman, who had also leaped into the water to help locate Benton.
“The ambulance crew was (downtown) having coffee, and they were there in a couple of minutes,” she said. “Everybody was awesome, as awful as it was.”
Cyndi said the family nearly moved from the area a number of years ago, when they were struggling financially and thought their prospects might be better elsewhere. The stayed, she said, for the boating and the community.
“The boat is gone, but we’ve still got our amazing neighbours and friends.”
“I appreciate all of the concern and thoughts everyone has had for us, and am so happy to have a healthy husband and son,” she added in the letter she posted to Facebook. “We are grateful for our decision to stay in Port McNeill, and maintain our relationships in Port Hardy. We stayed here on purpose when it was hard to do so, and don’t regret it.”