PORT McNEILL—A 46-year-old Port McNeill man and his 13-year-old son were taken to hospital with burn injuries following an explosion and rescue aboard a boat Monday afternoon at the Port McNeill Fuel Dock.
The incident left the harbour’s public boat launch closed well into Tuesday afternoon as RCMP forensic investigators sifted through the wreckage to determine the cause of the blast and ensure no threat to public safety remained on-board.
“It just sounded like a bomb went off,” said June Scown of Vancouver, who was reading a book on the deck of her boat at the nearby small-boat harbour on a pleasant B.C. Day afternoon. “Then there was a lot of smoke, and you could see the boat sinking fast. I heard somebody screaming; they said somebody was in the water.
“It was chaos.”
Celina Fletcher, an employee at the fuel dock who narrowly missed being struck by flying debris, phoned 911 at 3:06 p.m. Monday. RCMP were joined at the scene by the Port McNeill Volunteer Fire Department, BC Ambulance Service and volunteers from the local Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue Station 50.
The marina was closed to traffic for more than an hour while RCMP investigated. Boom was placed around the partially sunken vessel, an approximately 50-foot wooden boat, to contain any spilled fuel. Two victims from the boat were taken to the local hospital with burns and cuts, and were later flown to Victoria, where the father remained in intensive care for his burns on Tuesday. A fuel dock employee who received minor injuries was treated at the site.
“It was a well-coordinated effort with the RCM-SAR, the fire department and staff at the fuel dock,” said Cst. Chris Voller of Port McNeill’s RCMP detachment. “It was very well responded to by the civilian volunteers who initiated medical treatment and BC Ambulance on-scene.”
First on the scene was Steve Jackman, son of fuel dock and marina owner Bruce Jackman and an employee at the marina.
“I was on C Dock and heard the explosion,” said Jackman. “I don’t know what happened on the boat, but my first thought was to shut off the fuel and kill the fire on the boat. Then I heard someone screaming, ‘Where’s my son?’
“I jumped into the water, and fortunately (the youth) came staggering back onto the deck. I’m glad I didn’t have to dive down into the boat to look for him. He had some cuts and bruises and he was pretty shook up, but otherwise he seemed OK.”
The blast stunned other boaters and harbour visitors and left debris, including broken glass, strewn across the water, other nearby boats and on the dock. It also broke two office windows and tore some siding off the facade of the fuel dock. Brendon Allen of Sointula said in a post to Facebook that he heard the explosion on Malcolm Island.
“I didn’t see a fire,” said Bill Fast of Anacortes, Wash., who was tied up at the marina. “Just a big, huge concussion and a lot of smoke. There was an easy chair floating in the water, a kayak; all kinds of plunder.”
An statement released by Port McNeill RCMP Tuesday said the explosion occurred in the engine room of the vessel, but a definitive cause had not yet been identified.
“All indications are that is was accidental in nature,” the release stated.
Jackman said the boat’s owner had finished fuelling at the dock, then experienced difficulty trying to start his engine. As the owner left the wooden boat to re-secure the bow line, the son apparently returned to the vessel. The explosion occurred moments later, flipping the boat’s roof over and spraying a shower of glass and debris from the port side and into the fuel dock.
“It came from the bow, but we’re not sure if it was propane or (marine) fuel,” said Cst. Voller. “It doesn’t look like it was anything criminal in nature.”
Jackman, who swallowed gasoline while splashing through the water to rescue the youth, said there was a small fire near the boat’s propane tank when he boarded the sinking boat, but it went out when he shut off the tank.
“Unless they open it up and we have a chance to look through it, we’re not going to know the cause,” deputy fire chief Tasos Baroutis said Monday.
Baroutis had been working at his nearby restaurant when the explosion took place.
“I heard the explosion. It shook my building,” he said. “I ran to the scene; when I got here Steve was just coming out of the water holding the kid. (Jackman) really went above and beyond.”
The boat sank bow-first until the deck was level with the water’s surface. An aft structure remained above water, and an inflatable raft and the upside-down roof were still visible above the waterline. The boat did not go to the bottom, and about two hours after the blast RCM-SAR volunteers towed the stricken vessel, still ringed by several coils of boom, to the nearby public boat launch ramp, with the idea of lifting it out with the aid of an excavator.
Machine operator Barry Foster was able to drag the big boat partially out of the water by its anchor chain, but the chain winch snapped before it reached the ramp. Another effort was made to pull a cable looped around the back of the boat, but it gave way. Trying to hook the front hatch opening with the excavator’s claw merely splintered the front of the boat.
Facing a low tide, officials called off recovery efforts about 7 p.m. At high tide, approximately 1 a.m. Tuesday, the boat was brought higher onto the launch ramp, and removal resumed as the tide went out later in the morning. The initial plan was to break apart the boat and haul away the debris while the tide remained out Tuesday, but a trio of RCMP investigators arrived on the RCMP vessel Higgit early Tuesday to continue the investigation. That slowed progress on removal of the boat, as Foster periodically shut down the excavator so investigators could board and examine the wreckage.
“I feel so sorry for the people, losing their boat and all their things,” said Scown. “It was a lovely looking boat. We had just been remarking on it when it came in.”