OCEAN CITY — A potential deadly situation was averted last Saturday when a Good Samaritan arrived and took two people off a burning 46-foot sport fishing vessel that ultimately sank just a quarter mile offshore in front of a big beach crowd.
Around 3 p.m. last Saturday, Ocean City Communications received a call for a boat on fire in the ocean roughly in the area of 8th Street about a quarter mile off the crowded beach. Heavy black smoke poured from the burning vessel, identified as the “Sea Witch,” based out of the West Ocean City commercial harbor, as it drifted slightly north along the crowded beach.
Another Ocean City-based charter boat, the “Salty Sons,” was in the area and responded quickly to remove the burning vessel’s two occupants, who were uninjured. The Ocean City Fire Department responded quickly, implementing for the first time in an official active fire capacity its new fire boat, as did the Coast Guard, Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) and the private sector Tow Boat US.
Tow Boat US Captain Greg Hall said this week he heard the mayday over the radio and responded with his company’s small boat. Hall said he was uncertain from the distress signal the magnitude of the incident and believed at first it was a smaller vessel somewhere in the vicinity of the Inlet, but soon found out it was something much larger.
“We heard the mayday and jumped in our mini-boat and followed Ocean City’s fire boat out of the Inlet,” he said. “We weren’t sure what we were looking for at first, but when we rounded the rocks at the Inlet jetty and started to head north, we saw thick black smoke pouring from the burning sport fishing boat.”
Hall said when he arrived on the scene right behind the Ocean City fire boat, the engine room of the “Sea Witch” was completely engulfed in flames. He said the Ocean City Fire Boat immediately began soaking the burning vessel, shooting water through the vents to the engine room and the holes that had already burned in the vessel’s fiberglass hull. Hall said he and the fire boat worked quickly to prevent the burning vessel from coming ashore on the crowded beach.
Once the fire was extinguished, an attempt was made to tow the vessel, but it was taking on water through the holes in the hull and got washed over by large waves and rough seas on a couple of occasions, which essentially sealed its fate. In addition, severe damage to the boat’s systems contributed to its ultimate sinking.
“It was a combination of a lot of things,” said Hall. “The fire was so bad it burned through all of the rubber hoses in the engine room to systems like the bilge pump and the exhaust system.”
Questions arose during and after the incident about the amount of water the fire boat put onto the burning vessel contributing to its sinking, but Hall dismissed any notion of mishandling.
“That little fire boat did great,” he said. “It did exactly what it is supposed to do. The boat had open holes to the sea and was taking on a lot of water, then it got swamped a couple of times. When she went, she went quickly. She was doomed.”
Meanwhile, Ocean City Fire Department officials were pleased with the latest weapon in its firefighting arsenal.
“This was an outstanding example of how good training, good equipment and teamwork can save lives,” said Ocean City Fire Chief Chris Larmore. “I am thrilled that our residents and visitors can see why we have trained so hard to use the new fire boat. Our members did an outstanding job.”
As of late Thursday, the remains of the “Sea Witch” were still on the ocean floor just about a quarter mile off the beach at 10th Street. Crews from Hi-Tide Marine, which is handling the salvage, spent much of the week carefully preparing to raise the boat and tow it into shore. The cause of the fire is still unknown and is currently under investigation by the Coast Guard.