Explosion shakes vessel

Published 5:16 pm Thursday, January 6, 2011

Contributing Editor

An explosion aboard the Belle of Washington on Wednesday likely was caused by the ignition of built-up hydrogen gas in the vessel’s battery compartment, according to Washington emergency-response personnel.
The Belle of Washington, owned by A.G. Swanner and moored at the city’s waterfront near the N.C. Estuarium, received minor damage and no one was injured as the result of the explosion, said Lt. Jonathan Hardin with the Washington Fire-Rescue-EMS Department, who served as incident commander. The vessel is 85 feet long and 18 feet wide.
Firefighters/EMTs and Washington Police Department personnel arrived at the vessel about 12:45 p.m. after receiving a report of an explosion aboard the vessel, which is used for dinner cruises, party cruises and other cruises on the Pamlico River.
“We were dispatched for an explosion on the waterfront,” Hardin said during a brief interview Wednesday.
Police put up yellow “crime-scene” tape to restrict the public’s access to areas adjacent to the vessel as firefighters/EMTs advanced fire hoses toward the vessel in case of another explosion or fire.
After a preliminary investigation of about 30 minutes, fire officials determined the explosion occurred in the vessel’s battery compartment, located at one end of the ship. Some of the decking around the battery compartment was buckled and some windows were shattered. Hardin said it appears hydrogen gas, likely given off by the vessel’s batteries, was ignited by some source, possibly a battery charger. Hardin said the battery compartment was not ventilated.
“I’m sure it will continue on,” Hardin said about the investigation into the explosion.
Upon arriving at the vessel, fire officials were concerned about LP gas tanks or other compressed-gas tanks being on the vessel. The Belle of Washington, powered by two Volvo diesel engines, carries no such tanks. It also carries a Volvo generator.
Blount Rumley, manager of the Estuarium, said several of that facility’s staff members reported hearing something they believed was an explosion, but they were not sure of the source of noise they heard.
“They heard a boom,” he said.
A person walking along the waterfront heard the explosion and then notified a city dock attendant, who notified the police department, which in turn notified the fire department, said police Lt. William Chrismon.
Swanner said he believes the vessel can be repaired and inspected in time for its upcoming cruising season.
“It’s lucky no one was on the boat,” Swanner said after discussing the incident with fire officials.
Asked to comment on the response by emergency personnel, Swanner said, “Everything’s beautiful.”
Firefighters/EMTs from the city’s headquarters fire station and Station 2 responded to the waterfront.
Swanner bought the vessel in May 2008. Before coming to Washington, it spent two months at Jarrett’s Bay in Beaufort, where it was remodeled and prepared for its voyage to Washington. The boat holds a maximum of 85 people.