(Sept. 6, 2013) An offshore boat fire provided a shocking spectacle to downtown beachgoers over Labor Day Weekend, with the two passengers on board safely escaping to another vessel before their own boat sank.
Ocean City’s emergency dispatch center received a call for the incident around 3 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 31, according to a local government news release. The Sea Witch, a 50-foot charter fishing boat, appeared to have a fire in its engine compartment.
The vessel was roughly a quarter-mile off the beach at Eighth Street, although the volume of smoke was clearly visible to other boats and spectators on shore for a much greater distance.
“We were on our way back in [to shore] and [the Sea Witch] looked like it was putting out a lot more smoke than usual from the exhaust,” said Justin McGinnis, who was aboard his family’s own boat, the Salty Sons.
“When we got closer, you could tell it was putting smoke out of the intake as well,” McGinnis said. “That’s when you know you’re in trouble.”
The two passengers aboard the Sea Witch abandoned ship, with life jackets on, McGinnis said. The Salty Sons then pulled within roughly 100 feet of the burning vessel, so that McGinnis could heave lines out to the stranded passengers and pull them aboard.
The Ocean City Fire Department immediately responded to the scene – marking the inaugural in-action appearance of the OCFD’s new fire boat, which was completed earlier this year.
“This was an outstanding example of how good training, good equipment and teamwork can save lives,” OCFD Chief Chris Larmore said in the release. “I am thrilled that our residents and visitors can see why we have trained so hard to use the new fireboat. Our members did an outstanding job.”
The Sea Witch apparently remained afloat for some time after the OCFD had extinguished the fire. But while an attempt was being made to tow the boat back to harbor, it was struck by a large wave, causing it to sink.
“I’m sure the bilge pumps weren’t running any more after the fire,” McGinnis said. “It looked to me like that one wave just hit it and filled it up completely.”
Hi-Tide Marine Construction has been hired by the Sea Witch’s insurer to recover the wreck. As of press time, airbags were being used to raise the vessel, Denny Sharp of Hi-Tide said.
All of the boat’s fuel and oil ports have been plugged and there are no immediate environmental concerns, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.