Menemsha harbormaster, passing boater rescue nine from burning boat

An electrical fire engulfed the meticulously maintained 42-foot Ocean sportfisherman just outside Menemsha Harbor Saturday afternoon.

A Coast Guard crew from Station Menemsha attempts to control the blaze. Photo courtesy Kevin. R.A. Walsh.

A pleasant weekend visit to Menemsha Harbor by a member of a visiting local yacht club ended with a harrowing rescue of nine persons and the charred hull of “Shark Bite,” a 42-foot Ocean sportfisherman, the pride and joy of a Plymouth family, pulled up on Lobsterville Beach.

On Thursday night, Mike Mobilia of Plymouth, an electrician by trade, traveled from the Point Independence Yacht Club in Onset to Menemsha Harbor with his two children. He was there as part of a semiannual weekend event that attracts from 15 to 20 club boats.

Mr. Mobilia is no stranger to the harbor. “I’ve been going there my whole entire life since I was a kid,” he said. “My grandfather has always been there, my father’s been there.”

On Friday he and his two children waited for the other members of the club to arrive. His children were in and out of the Menemsha Texaco — a family ritual. “They save their money up all year so they can buy something,” he said.

Saturday, he left the dock with eight passengers to go fishing off Noman’s for several hours, then headed back for a potluck dinner with the yacht club members. The boat ran fine.

“I have spent the past eight years of my life crawling around in that bilge from bow to stern replacing or redoing everything … I am absolutely meticulous when it comes to maintenance.”

He was approaching the jetties that guard the entrance to Menemsha, and pulled back on the throttle. That is when he noticed black smoke coming from his port exhaust. “At that time my son opened the door to downstairs and started yelling, ‘Smoke, smoke in the cabin.’”

Mr. Mobilia put the boat in reverse and backed off from the jetty. Dick Butler, one of the men on board, took the wheel. Passenger Rick Penny, one of the trip organizers, contacted Chilmark harbormaster Dennis Jason and the Coast Guard, he said.

Mr. Mabilia ran downstairs and opened the engine hatches, but saw no evidence of smoke or fire. “I opened the electrical panel door, and smoke started billowing out all around there, so at that point I realized we were up against an electrical fire,” he said. He attempted to direct the fire extinguisher at the source of the fire as Mr. Butler had the passengers gather at the bow.

Mr. Jason and his assistant Glenn DeBlase were in the harbormaster’s shack. “We heard a call on the radio — it was Rick [Penny], I recognized his voice, and all he said was, ‘I think we have a bit of problem out here.’ And I knew him well enough to know from the tenor in his voice that something serious was going on. So we immediately got underway.”

Mr. Jason and Mr. DeBlase raced out of the harbor. “The people were up on the bow, the adults and the kids, and we could see smoke coming out of the cabin,” Mr. Jason said. “And we zipped up alongside and started taking people off the boat.”

Mr. Mabilia and Mr. Penny decided to stay on board thinking that they had the fire under control. “At no time did I think I was going to lose the boat,” Mr. Mabilia said.

Mr. Jason returned to the dock with the passengers. He estimated it took him about five minutes to unload. When he returned with more firefighting equipment, the boat was in flames.

Get off now

William Benns, Nashawena Island caretaker and a local harbormaster, was at the helm of his Nauset 35 Pictor on his way into Menemsha to pick up his girlfriend, artist Elizabeth Whelan, when he saw a boat that had just exited the jetties and people assembling on the bow. “I said, this isn’t right,” Mr. Benns told The Times.

Mr. Benns saw smoke coming from the vessel. He called the Coast Guard and described what he saw. As he was on the radio with the Coast Guard, Mr. Jason was on his way out of the harbor to offer assistance. Mr. Benns stood off a short distance in the Pictor while Mr. Jason and Mr. DeBlase removed the passengers.

From their vantage point, Mr. Mabilia and Mr. Perry could not see inside the engine compartment. “I could see flames in the engine room, through the vent window,” Mr. Benns said.

Mr. Benns moved in closer and placed his boat stern-to-stern. “You guys have got to get off that boat,” Mr. Benns demanded. Mr. Perry quickly complied. Mr. Mabilia was still trying to fight the fire when Mr. Benns insisted he give up the fight.

Mr. Benns said he pulled away and was about 150 feet from the stricken vessel when flames engulfed the cabin. A Coast Guard crew arrived in a 25-foot rigid-hull fast response boat. Once they were assured everyone was safely off the burning boat, the Coast Guard crew raced back into the harbor and returned in a 47-foot motor lifeboat.

“It all happened so fast,” Mr. Benns said. “It wasn’t 30 seconds before I had those two guys off and it was engulfed.”

Mr. Benns said it was clear the two men did not realize the seriousness of the situation, because they were on the deck and adamant about trying to save the boat. “They didn’t really want to come off, and I demanded they come with me,” he said.

Mr. Benns was well aware of how quickly fire can spread. “We had just been through a house fire ourselves a few months ago, and it was due to that experience that Bill was very aware of the short amount of time one has to act in a fire scenario,” Ms. Whelan said in an email. “He felt an overwhelming relief that he had been able to convince the men to get off the boat in time. We knew from experience that one gets tunnel vision about trying to save the house or boat, and it can be difficult to think beyond that in the adrenaline rush. We were thankful, though, that our own frightening experience resulted in being able to help others.”

Coast Guard under fire

Mr. Benns brought Mr. Penny into port. Mr. Mabilia transferred to a small Zodiac that belonged to one of the yacht club members to keep watch on his boat.

Mr. Jason said that when he arrived back out at the boat, he was relieved to find the anchor down so the boat would not drift into his mooring field. Now his concern was an explosion. A Coast Guard veteran and commercial fisherman, he had seen it happen before.

The Coast Guard arrived in a 47-foot motor lifeboat. Mr. Jason advised them that he thought “she might explode.” They watched for about 10 minutes as the flames engulfed the Shark Bite. TowBoatUS, a commercial tow company, also arrived to assist.

When it appeared there would be no explosion, the Coast Guard moved in with a hose. “I took the opportunity to steam up to her bow as close as I could and pick up the anchor line and tow it toward the beach — I thought she would be better up on the beach where she wouldn’t be a hazard and could be reached.”

Sitting in the Zodiac, Mr. Mabilia watched his boat burn and fumed over what he described as a lack of quick action. “The Coast Guard would not come out until Woods Hole authorized them to come out even though they could see the whole thing,” he said, and then deferred to those already on scene.

Mr. Mabilia said he later spoke to Coast Guard officials in a conference call. “I asked them, Why couldn’t you guys do anything; why’d you sit there and watch me? And they’re all telling me, they’re not firefighters. All they’re there to do is save people … I can’t even tell you how disgusted I am with the Coast Guard, because that boat should not have sank.”

In an email to The Times, BMCS Robert Riemer, Officer in Charge, Station Menemsha, said it was an unfortunate situation for the owner, and he wished there was more that the crew could have done.

“When we respond to a fire our main concerns are taking action in the initial stages of the fire and preventing the spread to other boats,: Chief Riemer said. “We are not trained to combat fires that are fully involved. We also only carry basic equipment like fire extinguishers. We do have a portable pump for dewatering a vessel that can be rigged for fire fighting but that is kind of an ad hoc capability that takes time to rig. Smoke would qualify as an initial stage, most of our involvement here happened after the initial stages.”

Chief Riemer said Mr. Mabilia showed good judgement in exiting the harbor “when he recognized the problem. Removing the boat from the harbor likely prevented other boats and waterfront facilities from being damaged.”

He added, “It is very impressive how private citizens and the harbormaster worked together to keep a bad situation from getting worse. Our Coast Guard crew was on scene and ready to assist, but because of the actions of our maritime partners and private citizens, we served a largely supportive role.”

Thankful to all

Once the Shark Bite was on the beach, confusion set in over efforts to place a boom around her to contain a spreading sheen of fuel. Bret Stearns, natural resources department director, said he exchanged messages with Chilmark, Coast Guard, and Aquinnah officials, but was not available to assist, and at one point was told by the Coast Guard that they were “all set.”

Mr. Stearns said he had a natural resources ranger transport a state-supplied trailer containing the necessary equipment to the scene, but the equipment could not be deployed due to a lack of manpower and a boat. Brian “Chip” Vanderhoop, Aquinnah harbormaster, said that by the time the fire department had extinguished the fire, night was setting in and it was too late to place the boom equipment, which requires three people to deploy. When a TowBoatUS crew arrived about 4 am Sunday morning, they set out a boom and absorbent mats to sop up fuel.

Late Sunday, a crane on a barge, under contract from BoatUS, lifted the hulk from the water and transported it to New Bedford, where it will be cut up and disposed of.

Mr. Jason said Mr. Mabilia and Mr. Penny are lifelong boaters, and acted wisely in not entering the harbor when they realized there was a possible problem. “It was a good play on their part,” he said.

Mr. Mabilia said he had put his heart and soul into his boat, and it was a focal point for many of his best family memories with his children: “It was heart-wrenching; it hurt.”

Mr. Mabilia said that while he regrets the loss of his treasured boat, he is very grateful that there were no injuries. He said Mr. Jason and Mr. DeBlase and the entire Menemsha community “were absolutely fabulous.” Marshall and Katie Carroll, owners of Menemsha Texaco offered any help they could give. “I can’t say enough about them,” he said.