Flames erupted from a 42-foot boat in a crowded Juneau harbor early Tuesday morning and the one man aboard was able to escape from the vessel before it sank in deep waters, according to officials.
What led to the blaze remained unknown Wednesday and Juneau Fire Marshal Dan Jager said investigators hadn't ruled out arson. However, with the potential crime scene at the bottom of a harbor, they hadn't ruled out much of anything, he said.
"Along with the possibility of arson, we're looking at mechanical failure, electrical failure, some sort of accidental cause," Jager said. "Until we actually get that boat to see what the scene is, everything is fair game."
Jager said firefighters were called to the burning boat at Statter Harbor around 1 a.m. Tuesday. When they arrived, the boat, Whimsea, was fully engulfed in flames, some shooting at least 30 feet into the air. He said a group of people nearby reported helping a man from the boat, one of them also helped to untie and cut loose other vessels near the flames, "which was very helpful," Jager said.
"The fire very likely could have spread to other boats and become much bigger," he said.
Jager described Statter Harbor in Auke Bay as one of the community's busiest. Typically, between 300 and 325 vessels are docked there, sometimes more than 400 during the summer season, said Dave Borg, Juneau harbormaster.
The fire didn't spread to any other boats, Jager said, but some had damage from the heat of the blaze. He said firefighters extinguished the flames and just a short time later, the Whimsea started to sink to the bottom of the harbor.
"There was really no chance to do any active investigating," he said.
Borg confirmed that the man aboard the boat was the vessel's owner, Gary Wilkins. He was taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation and later flown to Anchorage, according to Jager. A spokesman for Providence Alaska Medical Center said Wilkins was in serious condition Wednesday morning, an upgrade from critical.
Borg said Wilkins was a "longtime harbor patron" and said the Whimsea was in the water "for quite a few years." He believed Wilkins lived on the boat.
Early in the morning on June 15, a truck burned in the parking lot at Statter Harbor "and that's a possible arson as well," Jager said. He confirmed that Wilkins also owned that truck. The fire is being investigated, he said.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said in a report Tuesday on the boat sinking that the "primary objective" was to contain oil on the water's surface and remove floating oiled debris. DEC is working with the U.S. Coast Guard on the response to the sinking.
Lt. Jennifer Ferreira, a public affairs officer with Coast Guard Sector Juneau, said a diving team with a contracted company was expected to complete an underwater assessment of the boat Wednesday.
Jager said investigators were waiting for the Coast Guard and DEC to develop a plan for removing the boat so they could continue the investigation above water.
He said police had no "persons of interest or suspects" in the truck or boat fire. He asked anyone with any information or any photos or videos of the flames at the harbor to contact him at 907-586-0260.