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Boat explosion and fire leaves part of Whittier dock unsafe and hundreds of pounds of fish in limbo

This photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows the fishing boat Alaganik burning at a dock in Whittier, Alaska, in the early morning hours of Monday, July 8, 2019. The Coast Guard says a propane tank exploded around midnight Sunday on the 99-foot fishing vessel at a dock operated by the city of Whittier. The boat burned and sank at the dock. (U.S. Coast Guard via AP)

Bringing a load of Copper River salmon to the dock in Whittier, Mariah Warren came around Bur Point to a hellish scene at the waterfront.

A 99-foot salmon tender, the Alaganik, was engulfed in flames after an explosion just before midnight Sunday. Flames shot into the air.

“I was absolutely shocked," Warren said. “I was on the wheel. The crew was sleeping. At first I thought it was some sort of bizarre optical illusion.” She sped up to see if any help was needed, but turned back with another tender when it became clear it was dangerous to get too close.

Like other boats loaded with salmon that night, the tender she skippered was forced to find other ways to offload fish. A section of the city dock remains too damaged to use.

A 49-year-old Cordova man thought to be aboard the Alaganik at the time of the explosion is still missing. Authorities are not identifying him. The U.S. Coast Guard late Monday called off its search. The tender sank.

The cause of the blast remains under investigation, according to Petty Officer Amanda Norcross, a Coast Guard spokeswoman. Multiple people described a leaking propane tank, Norcross said. That has not been determined to be the cause, she said.

A 40-foot section of the city’s Delong Dock sustained so much damage that it’s not safe to use until repairs can be made, city manager Jim Hunt said this week. The dock is made up of two barges held by pilings topped by concrete decking.

“When concrete gets superheated, it turns to gravel,” Hunt said. “That whole support system is weak.”

This photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows damage after an explosion and subsequent fire destroyed the fishing boat Alaganik at a dock in Whittier Alaska, in the early morning hours of Monday, July 8, 2019. The pier, including three cranes, nearby structures, vehicles and the commercial fishing vessel Alaganik were damaged in the fire. (U.S. Coast Guard via AP)

Several seafood processing companies use the dock, he said. Three declined comment or did not respond to requests for information.

The fish companies had to find other, less convenient places to offload product because the dock has been closed, the city manager said. He was hoping to restart operations by the end of the day Thursday.

“There’s lots of moving parts right now, with a lot of money at stake,” Hunt said Wednesday. “There is between 400 and 500 pounds that needs to be offloaded within the next 24 hours. There’s a lot of fish that needs to be offloaded.”

Initially, a “minor” oil sheen was spotted on the water around the sunken vessel, Norcross said. The vessel owner, Robert Eckley, is taking care of cleanup and salvage, authorities said. There’s a 50-foot safety zone at the dock.

The Alaganik was once a separate tug and barge, but the barge was later welded to the tug, Norcross said. That led to initial reports that the explosion began on a barge and spread to the salmon tender.

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