42-foot vessel Whimsea sinks after possible arson

Boat owner Gary Wilkins admitted to the hospital, in critical condition * Bystanders helped save other boats in Statter Harbor

A 42-foot vessel, Whimsea, went down in flames early Tuesday morning, sending its occupant to the hospital with smoke inhalation injuries and the vessel to the bottom of Don D. Statter Memorial Harbor.

 

Fire Marshal Dan Jager confirmed that the owner of the boat, a 51-year-old unidentified man, is also the owner of a truck that burned at the harbor on June 15. That fire is still an open case, he said.

“To have a second fire loss within two weeks is definitely a red flag,” Jager said. “But we don’t even have any suspects, or persons of interest.”

Jager said that the fire department is working with Juneau Police Department on that case, as they do on all fires that are deemed suspicious. He added that because this newest fire involves a boat, the U.S. Coast Guard will also be involved in the investigation.

The fire was called in at 1 a.m. Tuesday.

Sleeping aboard his aluminum boat Monday, eye witness Frank Barnes told the Empire his boat felt “about 10 degrees hotter” than normal. When he looked out the window of his commercial sea cucumber diving vessel, tied up across the dock from the Whimsea, he could see the fire’s glow.

“It was fully engulfed, and I mean from bow to stern,” Barnes said. “That was just before 1 (a.m.).”

About 20 personnel from all five Capital City Fire/Rescue fire stations responded.

Sometime before then, somebody pulled the Whimsea’s occupant off the boat, both harbormaster David Borg and CCFR said, possibly saving his life.

Friends and family on Facebook identified the occupant and boat owner as Gary “Rod” Wilkins. A spokesperson from Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage confirmed that a Gary Wilkins was admitted to the hospital and was in critical condition.

Borg said an unidentified good Samaritan cut surrounding boats from the dock, allowing them to drift away from the fire, Borg said. The same man or a different man — as of Tuesday, Borg was still trying to identify the good Samaritans — rounded up some of those boats with a skiff, tying them up a safe distance from the fire.

Those actions could have saved the rest of the harbor from catching fire, as there was “absolutely” a risk that the fire would spread to other boats, Jager said.

“We want to give credit to the bystanders that were here before we showed up that helped with the occupant and whoever called it in first. That was huge,” Jager said.

CCFR is waiting for the Whimsea to be brought to the surface to investigate possible causes of the fire, according to Jager. It’s being investigated as a possible arson right now, as CCFR can’t rule that out yet. Other possible causes include mechanical or electrical fire or an accident.

“(We’re) not saying that it is an arson, but we haven’t ruled that out yet,” Jager said at the harbor Tuesday. CCFR is waiting on the salvage crew to bring the Whimsea to the surface to investigate the fire scene.

Anyone with information, photos or video of this fire is asked to contact Jager at 586-0260 or Juneau Police Department at 586-0600.

Oil and debris cleanup

The Whimsea’s sinking has left responders with a mess.

Charred chunks of wood and debris floated through about half of Statter Harbor on Tuesday, with larger chunks contained by a yellow floating boom the harbor office deployed Tuesday morning. Orange oil-absorbing “sorbent” pads floated in the water, some already saturated with oil.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation have taken charge of the cleanup. Coordinating the spill response are the USCG’s Lewis Beck and DEC’s David J. Pikul.

Only the vessel owner knows how much fuel was in the Whimsea’s tank, and Beck said he’s waiting on the owner to be cleared from the hospital before contacting him.

“I’m not going to bug the guy if he’s at the hospital, but once he’s back from the hospital, we plan on meeting with him and establishing what he can and can’t do,” Beck said.

Federal funds have been accessed for the immediate response. They’re hoping to have the debris cleaned up within 24 hours, Beck said.

“We’ll be looking at deploying more boom, we’re going to be putting sorbents in the water, then we’ll be recovering those sorbents once they’re saturated,” Beck said.

“What is oil will be cleaned up with sorbent pads and what isn’t will be removed,” Pikul added.

SE Underwater Services has been contracted to do the cleanup and salvage work and was on scene Tuesday afternoon to assess the project. The company’s Dorian Hobbs coordinated with the USCG and DEC to plan the immediate cleanup.

Because the boat burned before sinking, the integrity of the structure could make bringing it to the surface risky, Hobbs said.

“We don’t know if it’s structurally unstable. Putting lift on that thing on any weird point, with it being structurally unstable, could make it bust into a bunch more pieces. Doing so just makes a bigger mess and could rupture the fuel tanks and whatnot,” Hobbs said. “This is a little bit more complicated than a salvage simply for the fact that it caught on fire, so the structural integrity is gone.”

SE Underwater Services will clean up the debris and send a diver down, likely on Wednesday, to assess the wreckage, which sits in a little over 150-feet of water, Borg said.

“Once you get eyes on it, the plan develops from there,” Hobbs said.

 


 

• Kevin Gullufsen is a reporter for the Juneau Empire. Reporter Liz Kellar also contributed to this story.

 


 

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