The explosion happened around 3:15 p.m., with the recreational boat “engulfed in a fireball” that sent a billowing cloud of black smoke into the air above the harbor, according to City Manager Jim Hunt.
A woman on the boat was burned and further injured when she tried to rescue a cat, Hunt said. She was evacuated by air to an Anchorage hospital but is expected to survive, he said. The cat died, he said. No other people were onboard.
The boat had just been launched and was tied to the float ramp when it caught fire, he said. The woman was onboard while her husband went to park the trailer, said Joe Corbett, acting head of the Whittier Police Department. The boat was an older model, likely made in the 1980s or 70s, and was about 28 feet long and made from fiberglass, he said.
First responders from Whittier, Girdwood and the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel helped extinguish the fire. Corbett said the blaze was out in less than an hour.
“It took a while to get water charged down the lines and all the way down to float, but they got water on it and on the dock — our practically brand new floats and dock system were on fire as well,” Hunt said. “They were able to push the boat away a little bit, and then it floated off to the east to the inside of our harbor.”
First responders in Whittier had already been responding to several unrelated medical calls, Corbett said, when “everything happened all at once.”
The tunnel connecting Whittier, on Prince William Sound, to roadways linking up to other communities in Southcentral Alaska was shut down for about an hour to expedite travel for first responders, and Hunt said the harbor was shut down for three to four hours. An engineer will survey damage to the dock and float, Hunt said, but the area was operational Thursday and officials plan to reopen the side that was damaged.
Just a burned hull remained of the boat after the fire was extinguished.
Corbett said mechanical issues were suspected to have caused the explosion. An investigation involving multiple agencies will be conducted to determine an official cause, he said.