Byline: Taylor Hill
HUNTINGTON BEACH — A 24-foot powerboat caught fire and exploded in Huntington Harbour Nov. 26, injuring eight of the nine people on board and sending five people into the water.
According to Orange County Sherriff’s Harbor Patrol Sgt. Fritz Von Rettberg, the boat had just left the Huntington Harbour launch ramp when passengers on board smelled fuel and checked the engine compartment. They were headed back to the launch ramp when the explosion occurred.
The explosion resulted in injuries to eight of the nine people aboard the boat, who were out for a day cruise to Long Beach. The boaters, ranging from teenagers to 50-year-olds, suffered broken bones, cuts, bruises and burns and were taken by Huntington Beach Fire Department personnel to various hospitals in the area. None of the injuries reported was life threatening.
“Typically, these explosions occur when there are gas fumes in the bilge; when it accumulates vapor there,” Von Rettberg said. “The introduction of a spark of some sort can ignite those fumes.”
Harbor Patrol received a mayday call reporting the incident at 11:50 a.m., with deputies Mike Beachner and Pat Douglass responding aboard Fireboat #1 to the launch ramp. The mayday call was made by Tom Cantwell, 48, a retired reserve Harbor Patrol lieutenant who had been cruising the harbor that day aboard his 22-foot Boston Whaler.
Cantwell was heading for the main channel and approaching the launch ramp when the imperiled boat pulled in front of him.
“The vessel was 30 or 40 yards ahead of me, and I watched it explode,” Cantwell said. “I saw the people go into the water, I saw the flames, I saw it all — right in front of me.”
After sending out the mayday, Cantwell sprang into action, pulling his boat up alongside the flaming vessel. He began throwing life jackets into the water toward the five people who had been thrown from the boat.
Cantwell got those five aboard his boat, and then he shifted his focus to the four still aboard the burning craft.
“The flames were still building, and the smoke was bad,” Cantwell said. “I didn’t know if it was going to explode again, so I needed them off the boat.”
As the fire worsened, Cantwell convinced three of the four aboard the boat to get in the water. Cantwell said the one man left aboard the boat said he was severely injured and was having trouble getting off the boat.
After some further convincing, the man rolled into the water. Cantwell jumped in after him, swimming the injured man over to the powerboat’s skipper, who was now standing in chest-deep water. The man had sustained a broken pelvis, a broken femur and two broken arms.
“The cockpit was so much on fire that I didn’t think I would have been able to get over the transom from the swim step to get to him,” Cantwell said. “That scared me, but he showed great strength getting into the water.”
Cantwell then returned to his boat, backing it farther away from the burning vessel. By this time, the Harbor Patrol boat had arrived on the scene and helped remove the remaining passengers from the water.
The passengers were taken to the fuel dock, where paramedics were standing by. A Long Beach Lifeguard boat helped extinguish the burning vessel, which had gone aground on the mud banks of Hog Island, across the channel from the launch ramp.
A hazardous materials unit was deployed by Huntington Beach Fire Department to clean up the fuel in the water.
Cantwell, who retired four years ago from the Harbor Patrol as a reserve deputy, said he had never experienced anything like that in his time on patrol.
“I can’t believe it happened, but I knew I needed to help those people,” Cantwell said. “I knew I had to call in for help, but I (also) knew I had to get there to help those people. I’m glad I could help them.”
The fire department is conducting a further investigation to determine the cause of the explosion.