BELLINGHAM Search and rescue teams continued working late Friday afternoon, March 30, but investigators said two people missing in a huge fire at Squalicum Harbor likely were trapped aboard a burning boat that sank during the blaze.
The fire that broke out at about 5:30 a.m. Friday destroyed a series of boathouses and 10 yachts moored at Gate 3, G Dock East, near the Bellingham Yacht Club.
Some of the boats were loaded with fuel, creating a series of explosions as tanks erupted into fireballs.
Jim Langei, 43, and Sterling Taylor, 33, were living on a 42-foot recreational trawler in the boathouse, said Bellingham police Sgt. Shawn Aiumu.
Langei works for Whatcom Educational Credit Union on the business service team and also owns Americas Cup, a coffee shop near the Yacht Club. His wife, Taylor, is the shops manager.
Everybodys heartbroken, said Alan Hamilton, a friend of the couple, as others gathered at the marina Friday awaiting word of their fate and sharing memories of them.
Aiumu said the couples family had not heard from them, but said theres a chance they were not aboard the boat at the time of the fire.
Theres always a chance, he said.
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter and divers searched the area for any sign of the couple, but debris and other hazards held up the search effort.
Were hoping for the best, said, Roger Christensen, assistant chief with the Bellingham Fire Department.
The boats were docked beneath individual metallic boathouses, each about a foot apart, Christensen said. Flames destroyed the entire line of shelters, with the boats inside, before firefighters could extinguish the blaze.
Port officials werent sure exactly how many boats were housed there Friday morning.
The city decommissioned an old fire boat, Fire Belle, last year and didnt replace it because of the cost.
We were unsuccessful in securing funds to replace it, Christensen said. We could have used it today.
Crews were only able to get to the fire from nearby docks. G Dock East is among the farthest from shore, about a quarter-mile out near a breakwater.
When you fight fire, you want to be able to fight it from multiple sides, Christensen said. (A fire boat) is the perfect tool.
Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Boyd was reluctant to get rid of the boat, but said at the time that it was necessary to do so to provide other basic fire and emergency-medical services. Keeping the boat cost the city about $30,000 a year.
Fridays fire was the second one in the harbor in the past month. In late February, fire destroyed a sailboat and damaged another boat.
Firefighters are continuing to investigate the cause of Fridays blaze. Theyre not sure where the fire started, Christensen said, so investigators are looking at photographs of the fire in its early stages to determine the point of origin.
From downtown Bellingham, thick black plumes of smoke could be seen rising northeast from the harbor at 6 a.m. Fuel tank explosions were reported about 6:45 a.m., lasting about a half an hour.
Two hours later, the smoke had died down, but firefighters were still putting out the last remnants of the flames. Pilings continued to smolder Friday afternoon.
State Department of Ecology crews arrived by 10 a.m. to investigate any oil, diesel or other environmental hazards that may have gotten into Bellingham Bay. Containment booms were able to keep fuel from the sunken boats within a small area, said Dick Walker, of Ecology.
Cleanup will probably take several days, he said.
Its estimated that the boats, together, likely had several hundred gallons of fuel aboard, but its unclear how many gallons might have spilled into the water, officials said.
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