Sunday, September 15, 1985, Forked River, NJ. The day dawned clear, cool and calm. We had coffee and read the paper aboard the Amberjack in our slip at Southwinds Marina on Forked River. It was such a pretty morning that I decided to invite my parents down for a boat ride. I walked over to the pay phone at the fuel dock and called my mother. While we were making arrangements, I idly watched a 35-foot older wooden cabin cruiser come in for fuel. They were well into the fueling process about 15 feet from me when I finished my call. I strolled back the 350 feet to the Amberjack and stepped aboard. I had just walked into the cabin and started to talk to Marilyn when an incredible explosion ripped the air! It sounded like somebody had tossed a cherry bomb into the cabin. I spun around to see debris flying into the air followed by smoke in the direction of the fuel dock.


I jumped off the boat and started in the direction of the smoke at a dead run. As I rounded the marine railway, the young fuel attendant was in the water holding on to the side of the railway yelling, "my leg's broke!" Others came running up so I continued around the building to the dock. The scene was a shock. The 35-footer was sunk to the gunnels. Flames were rising from the cockpit and the cabin. A man was in the water where the stern had been. Realizing that the fire, possibly fed by gallons of fuel floating to the surface, was the immediate danger, I grabbed the water hose from the rack and started spraying the fire. The man shouted that he was trapped. Several other men appeared at the dock and started working with him. He got disentangled and made his way over the six feet to the dock where they got hold of him. I couldn't break the fire up completely with the garden hose. It was definitely gasoline burning, as the water was burning. Aware that it could spread, I asked the man if he was hurt bad. He said he wasn't, so I told the others that the fire might spread and to get him out of there! They hauled him up on the dock and drug him clear. A man showed up with a CO2 extinguisher and sprayed the flames. They died down but came right back up when the extinguisher ran out. I had another man get the second dock water hose and start working on the foredeck fire.


Meanwhile, we did a quick interrogation of the survivors and found that there had been five people on the boat, three men and a teenage boy and girl. We did a quick headcount and determined that we had everyone out of the water and in relative safety. Marilyn worked with several other people to immobilize and wrap the victims and reassure them that their family was all safe.


We tried several extinguishers without success until someone brought a 10-pound dry chemical extinguisher. I was surprised to find that the chemical, floating on the gasoline, extinguished the fire. I shifted my hose to the foredeck area, where apparently the fire was burning on the underside of the deck. There were cushions blocking the hatch, making it impossible to get the water directly onto the fire. I was really worried that the raw gasoline from the cockpit would float forward and the whole thing would explode again, right in our faces.


I heard the fire siren sound, then the smaller sirens of the trucks, then the trucks arrived, then the hoses came out, then they were hooked up, then, finally, came water, lots of it! It still was a stubborn fire and took a while to extinguish. I must stop at this point and explain that the foregoing sequence only took a few minutes, but when you're not winning against a fire and you don't know when it may explode, it seems like an eternity. I gratefully relinquished my unwanted post to the trained firemen who made a thorough job of extinguishing the fire and checking everything that was above water for hot cinders.


Of the six victims, four were treated at the hospital and released. Two were held, one with broken vertebrae in the neck. This was one of the passengers on the boat, and he was unable to move any part of his body while at the scene. The boat owner sustained a broken elbow and an eye injury.


The blast was heard in Waretown and Tom's River, it was so intense. What with VHF radio, CB, and the landlines, both the roads and the river were jammed with onlookers.


Later in the afternoon, a large crane and a crew arrived to remove the boat. A short time later, I was asked to go down with my scuba gear and position the slings for the crane. Marilyn and I loaded the scuba gear into the truck and drove over to the fuel dock. We had to go past a crowd control barricade to get to the roped off area. I felt like Lloyd Bridges as I donned my wet suit and tank. The foreman asked me to take a small nylon strap down and just get it around anything under the bottom, such as a rudder or a prop so that they could lift the hulk off the bottom to be able to get the large slings under it. I expected the water to have zero visibility, but I actually had 18-inch visibility. The transom was completely gone and the bottom was resting in the soft mud of the bottom.


I scooped the mud out and eventually found a rudder. I got the sling around the rudderpost and took it up and hooked it on the large crane hook just above the water. When I was out of the water they lifted the stern about two feet. They had already worked a sling to the proper position from the bow back and I went in again to position the large stern sling ahead of the props and roughly under the engines.


From there on I was a spectator like the rest as they lifted the remains from the water. As it was lifted, the forward section buckled inward. The explosion must have broken every frame in the hull. The bow, foredeck, and cabin were still there, although split, splintered and shattered. From amidships (at about the beginning of the engine compartment) back, there was nothing left above the waterline. Just the bottom, the engines, and the batteries with the bright yellow jumper cables still attached.


Some reflections on looking back.


1. It goes without saying that the engine compartment was filled with gas vapor.


2. There was a spark. Whether it came from the ignition or from the jumper cables or whatever is not material in the face of # 1.


3. It was a miracle that no one was killed or seriously burned in the mishap.


4. Both Marilyn and I found ourselves lacking in first aid skills and have resolved to take some training forthwith.


5. Given that we were rusty, there is no excuse for people (who are standing there gawking) refusing to budge when Marilyn asked them to go get some towels, blankets and cloths.


6. We were only two of more than a dozen who immediately pitched in to do what they could in an emergency.