On eve of opener, boat burns

Fire suddenly engulfs seiner as Cordova crew gets off safely.

Cordova TimesAugust 18, 2012 

CORDOVA -- Being an English major passionate about literature, Jerry Lundli decided to name his seiner after a Shakespearian play: the Tempest.

But the last thing this Seattle-based fisherman expected was that one day his son would witness the boat engulfed in flames and sinking in conditions similar to its eponymous English tragedy.

It was Aug. 3, the eve of a big opener halfway through the fishing season; the four crew members on board the Tempest -- Jacob Lundli, George Morris and the Dunning brothers Brice and Zach -- were quietly cruising by Snug Harbor on the east side of Knight Island in Prince William Sound. When Brice Dunning, 26, went to carry out his routine check of the engine room around 8 p.m., the weather was perfectly calm.

About 20 minutes later the captain of the boat, Jacob Lundli, smelled smoke.

"So I went to check again," remembered Brice Dunning, sitting on the couch of his temporary home in Cordova, where he and Lundli have been staying since the fire. "I lifted the hatch and flames were coming out of the engine room."

The men, all in their mid-20s except Morris, 62, tried to stop the fire by using the nearby extinguishers and throwing water on the engine only to see it becoming worse and life-threatening. "There was nowhere to go, we couldn't even reach the top house anymore," said Dunning as he described what was rapidly unfolding around the crew.

Once it was established that there was no way to stop the fire, the crew members had to quickly get off the boat. Some didn't even have shoes on. "It happened really, really fast," said Lundli, who had to leave behind his phone and wallet before jumping on the seine skiff and abandoning ship.

Luckily the Tempest had been running with Kenny Jones' seiner, the Sam-An-I. Jones quickly went to pick up the four survivors, who were watching their boat drifting away, engulfed in huge flames.

The two young men, now staying at Pam and Ken Jones' house, said it took a while to recover from the shock.

"It was a tough decision," Lundli said, still shaken by the still fresh memories of the burning boat and exhausted by a number of back and forths to retrieve his skiff on the other side of the Sound and sort out administrative paperwork.

Now 25 years old, Lundli had been fishing on his grandfather's seiner since he was 8 and is aware of all the time and money his dad has invested in it. "It was halfway through the season, and we were geared up with a month worth of supplies for next half of the season," he said with a hint of remorse.

Lundli and Dunning seem to have approached the incident with wisdom that comes from the generations of family that have proceeded them as well as years of fishing together. No one knows exactly what caused the fire but Lundli, who studied mechanics and worked for four years in a Seattle shipyard, believes it was a mechanical problem of some sort.

"What matters is that we're all safe," Lundli said. "A boat is still just a boat; you can replace it."

The two young men said they were also relieved that no fuel had leaked out of the boat. "It could have washed up on the beach, the fuel could have spread out and the whole district would have been shut down," said the boat's captain, worried for the environmental impact of such a disaster and for the fleet on such an important fishing day.

The day after the incident, the U.S. Coast Guard, alerted by the Sam-an-I, had sent a boat to check on the four crew members and sent a helicopter over the area. The overflight showed no sign of leaking, a report said, nor any sign of debris remaining from the Tempest.

Reflecting on the experience and searching for at least something to salvage, Lundli said, the lesson was exactly as his dad had told him repeatedly for as long as he could remember: You always need to know what to do in case of emergency. "These boats seem so peaceful, you get excited, there's fish everywhere, the weather's good, the sun is setting behind the mountains. ... Ten minutes later, you're abandoning ship."

Thanks to Ken Jones, of the Sam-an-I, the crew managed to save most of the valuable seine net. Lundi and Dunning plan to work on rebuilding that.

"Ken stayed up until at least 2 or 3 in the morning that night, right before a big opener," Lundli pointed out, appreciative. "The list of people we'd like to thank for their help goes on and on."

When asked what was the most comforting thing they received after escaping from the boat, Lundli replied: "Shower and food. At that point it just means the world to you."

Since their arrival in Cordova, where they received an outpouring of spontaneous yet well-organized help, the men have been able to slowly recover, trying to relax and maintain a positive state of mind.

Lundi said that just sitting can be overwhelming as they ponder their situation. For Lundi, it is deeply personal. His family has fished here in the neighborhood of 100 years without incident. Since being back on shore, the two young men have been kayaking the rivers and spending time with friends before getting on with life. Brice Dunning will be commercial diving, and Jacob Lundli will go halibut fishing on a Kodiak boat when the season starts in the fall.

Both Jacob and Jerry Lundli say they hoped to get back on their feet by next season with a new boat. They don't know how they'll call it yet, "but it won't be after a Shakespeare play," said the young Lundli.

Sitting next to his friend and crew member, Lundli added, "I am just thankful that no one was hurt. I am the captain, and at the end of the day, no matter what the cause, I am responsible. If someone had lost their life, I just could not have lived with myself."

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