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Coast Guard suspends search for man missing after propane blast at Whittier dock

A search was underway Monday, July 8, 2019, for two people after an overnight explosion aboard a fishing vessel at a dock in Whittier in Southcentral Alaska. (Photo by Patrick McCormick)

The Coast Guard late Monday suspended the search for a 49-year-old Cordova man who went missing after the explosion at a dock in Whittier.

A propane tank exploded on a fixed barge at the Delong Dock around midnight, and the fire spread to the pier and a fishing vessel, the U.S. Coast Guard. The fishing boat was the 99-foot Alaganik, with one person aboard. Two people were initially reported to be on the boat.

The dock is operated by the city of Whittier.

Coast Guard watchstanders heard a “Whittier fire, Whittier fire” call over the VHF radio and called dispatchers in Whittier, the Coast Guard said. Several minutes later, an Alaska Railroad security officer also reported the situation.

The resulting fire spread to the dock and three boom trucks on it, according to city officials.

Damage is pictured after an explosion and fire at Delong Dock in Whittier, Alaska, July 8, 2019. The pier, including three cranes, nearby structures, vehicles and the commercial fishing vessel Alaganik were damaged in the fire. (Photo courtesy of Coast Guard Sector Anchorage)

The cause of the explosion is under investigation. The Whittier Volunteer Fire Department, Anton Anderson Fire Response Team and Girdwood Fire Department responded. The fire department confirmed the fire was out by 2:50 a.m. Monday.

An MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter searched for the missing man, the Coast Guard said. No one else was reported injured.

The fishing vessel had a 5,500-gallon fuel capacity. It sank at the dock, which houses several fish companies. A Coast Guard cutter established a 100-yard safety zone around it, USCG spokeswoman Petty Officer Amanda Norcross said. The dock is closed as the investigation and damage assessment continues.

The fishing vessel and barge sank in 85 feet of water, the Coast Guard said. The fishing vessel owners have contracted Global Diving and Salvage for cleanup and salvage efforts.

Whittier Harbor Fire, Girdwood units are headed back to quarters. Thank you Station 9 for covering the Girdwood Valley....

Posted by Girdwood Fire Department on Monday, July 8, 2019

Kelly Bender and her family own a Whittier-based charter, the Lazy Otter. The noise of the explosion just before midnight Sunday sent them running to figure out what happened. They saw the dock was on fire.

Bender said her husband and son -- an off-duty Anchorage firefighter -- jumped into the company’s boat with dewatering pumps.

“They were able to get close enough and throw a grappling hook, about 40 feet,” Bender said. “They were able to just pull it off the dock to prevent more damage. I guess the boat sunk pretty quickly.”

Another of the company’s boats joined other vessels on the water searching for the two missing people but saw no sign of them, she said.

The state fire marshal was en route to the scene Monday morning.

[This story has been edited to say that the boat was at a dock operated by the city of Whittier, not by the Alaska Railroad.]

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