Explosion of a boat in Whittier, injuring a woman and closing a tunnel and harbors

A city official said a boat explosion at the launch of the Whittier boat Wednesday afternoon injured a woman and killed a cat, and caused major delays to land and sea transportation.

The explosion occurred around 3:15 p.m., as the recreational boat “submerged a fireball” sending a cloud of black smoke into the air over the harbor, according to City Manager Jim Hunt.

Hunt said a woman on the boat sustained burns and other injuries when she tried to rescue a cat. He said she was evacuated by air to a hospital in Anchorage but is expected to survive. The cat is dead, said the cat. There were no other people on board.

He said the boat had just launched and was attached to the buoyancy ramp when it caught fire. Joe Corbett, acting chief of the Whittier Police Department, said the woman was on board while her husband was stopping the trailer. He said the boat was an older model, likely made in the 1980s or 1970s, and was about 28 feet long and made of fiberglass.

First responders from Whittier, Girdwood, and the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel helped put out the fire. Corbett said the fire broke out in less than an hour.

“It took a while for the water to charge down the lines and all the way for it to float, but they got water on them and on the pier — our new buoys and mooring system also caught fire,” Hunt said. “They managed to push the boat away a little bit, and then it floated eastward into our harbor.”

Corbett said Whittier’s first responders were already responding to several unrelated medical calls, when “everything happened at once.”

The tunnel connecting Whittier, on Prince William Sound, to roads connecting other communities in Southcentral Alaska was closed for about an hour to expedite travel for first responders, and Hunt said the port was closed for three to four hours. An engineer will survey damage to the pier and float, Hunt said, but the area was operating Thursday and officials plan to reopen the damaged side.

Only a burnt hull was left of the boat after the fire was extinguished.

Corbett said he suspected mechanical failures caused the explosion. He said a multi-agency investigation would be conducted to determine an official cause.

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