Coast Guard responds to Alaska barge explosion and fire

Coast Guard crews were searching for one person missing after an explosion and subsequent fire at Delong Dock in Whittier, Alaska, yesterday.

An MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew from Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, forward deployed to Cordova, searched by air while crews aboard the Coast Guard cutter Chandeleur and Coast Guard Auxiliary 336 continue to search for the missing person. The person, a 49-year-old man from Cordova, remained missing after the search was suspended shortly after midnight today.

Shortly after midnight, Coast Guard Sector Anchorage watchstanders heard the phrase “Whittier fire, Whittier fire” over VHF Channel 16 and contacted Whittier dispatchers, who confirmed there was a fire at Delong Dock. Several minutes later, an Alaska Railroad security officer also reported the situation.

The explosion reportedly occurred on a fixed barge, and the fire spread to the pier and then to the Alaganik, a 99-foot commercial fishing vessel that was initially reported to have two people aboard at the time of the explosion. The Whittier Police Department confirmed that one of the two people that was aboard is safe.

A propane tank that had been leaking exploded aboard the barge causing the fire, which spread to the Alaganik and nearby buildings and vehicles, according to Manda Norcross, spokeswoman with the Coast Guard’s 17th District in Juneau.

While officials continue investigating the cause of the explosion and fire, the search for the missing person was suspended shortly after midnight on July 9. The Coast Guard could not confirm whether the missing person was working on the Alaganik.
“Originally, there was a report that there were two missing persons,” said Norcross. “But a later search found [one of them]on another boat, safe with his family.”

Sector watchstanders issued a Safety Marine Information Broadcast that established a 100-yard safety zone to keep vessels a safe distance from the fire while the crew of the Chandeleur launched in response to help maintain the safety zone and conduct a search.

By 2:50 a.m., Whittier Fire Department personnel confirmed that the fire was extinguished.

The fishing vessel and barge sank in 85 feet of water at the pier with a maximum of 5,500 gals. of fuel oil aboard. The fishing vessel owners have contracted Global Diving & Salvage Inc. for clean-up and salvage efforts.

Brian Hicks, Whittier Fire Department chief and the on-scene commander, confirmed personnel from Whittier Fire Department, Whittier Police Department, Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel Fire Department and Girdwood Fire Department are all involved in the response, including crews aboard Tender 41 and Tender 42 from Girdwood.

Charlie Ess, the North Pacific Bureau Chief for National Fisherman, contributed to this report.

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