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Boat catches fire, leading to rescue at sea in Nanaimo

Emergency services responded to location near Fillinger Crescent at 10:25 a.m. Thursday

Three people were rescued from the waters off Nanaimo after the boat they were on caught fire, forcing them to abandon ship this morning, Sept. 27.

Canadian Coast Guard and coast guard auxiliary vessels from Nanaimo, French Creek and Vancouver, Nanaimo Port Authority harbour patrol craft and civilian vessels responded along with Nanaimo Fire Rescue and other emergency services to the boat fire, which was first reported off of Fillinger Crescent in the Hammond Bay-Neck Point area at about 10:25 a.m.

Witnesses could see the pleasure craft fully ablaze and its occupants in the water, cling to a life preserver.

“When I looked out from my seaside windows this morning I saw this cabin cruiser was on fire, black smoke pouring out of it and occasional bursts of flame and then I thought, well they’re in need, so I phoned 911,” said Manly Price, Fillinger Crescent resident.

Multiple 911 calls were already coming in and smoke from the burning craft could be seen from several kilometres away.

Manly estimated the first rescue craft arrived within about 20 minutes after he called 911.

“I just seen a bit of blip of red and I thought they were in a small rubber boat … they were well west of where the boat was drifting, but then they started to drift westward with the wind and the seas,” Price said. “It was hard to keep track of them because of the white caps that were starting to come up, but anyway it appeared that [coast guard] got them out, but what I thought was a rubber raft, seeing this bit of orange in the waves, turned out to be just a life preserver the two of them were hanging on to … but it was terrific flames at some points and black, black smoke. I thought the damn thing would explode.”

The boat was finally driven by winds onto the beach at Neck Point Park where firefighters doused the flames.

Nanaimo harbour patrol boat MV Osprey was one of the first rescue craft on scene, reaching the victims at the same time as the fast response coast guard auxiliary boat from French Creek. Rodney Grounds, Nanaimo Harbour master, said the choppy conditions made it difficult to spot the people in the water and was talking with witnesses at Rocky Point to try to pinpoint a location. By this time the boaters and their craft had drifted apart a considerable distance.

“I was talking to the people on shore asking where the three people are and nobody could point them out to me,” Grounds said. “It wasn’t until the Osprey arrived that the people started yelling and we were able to eyeball, then I got on the radio and directed the Osprey to them and the French Creek life boat to them … I didn’t expect to see them that far away from the vessel. The vessel obviously had a lot bigger drift than they did.”

Once pulled from the water, the boat’s occupants – one man, one woman and a girl – were taken in the French Creek rescue craft to the Pacific Biological Station dock where they were transferred to B.C. Ambulance which took them to Nanaimo Regional General Hospital. Grounds said the youth and woman were reportedly into the early stages of hypothermia when they were picked up.

John Thomson, coxwain on Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary Unit 27 boat from Nanaimo, confirmed the boaters were one man, one woman and their 12-year-old daughter. The stricken craft was the First Lady, he estimated at 35-40 feet in length. He said firefighters could not get too close to the burning boat, which had about 500 litres of diesel on board and there was fear of the fuel tanks exploding.

“The boat appeared to catch fire rather suddenly and the people bailed out into the water. There was no choice,” Thomson said. “They were in the water, I would estimate, 30 to 40 minutes before rescue boats got on scene.”

He said the victims all were wearing personal flotation devices. The adults were clinging to boat fenders and the girl was in a life ring.

“We’re just glad we got the people out of the water and everything went well,” Thomson said. “That’s the key thing. The boat can burn, but when you’ve got people in the water it gets a little stressful.”

The cause of the fire remains unknown.