GARDINER — Two Oakland women were injured Friday morning in an explosion aboard a boat in the Kennebec River that left the flaming craft floating on the tide before running aground in Pittston.
Firefighters used foam to suppress the stubborn gasoline fire, which kept re-igniting.
All four people — two married couples — aboard the 23-foot Wellcraft open boat jumped into the river after the explosion and were picked up by another boater, investigators said.
The injured women, Vickie Massey and Liliane Davidson, were taken by ambulance to MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta where they were treated and released, according to a hospital spokeswoman.
Sgt. Ken Grimes, of the State Fire Marshal’s Office, said earlier it appeared their injuries were not life-threatening.
Also aboard were their husbands, Jeffrey Massey and Howard Davidson. Grimes said the boat is owned by the Masseys, who live in Oakland, and had been in the water several times this season.
Grimes said the women were sitting in the back of the boat on either side of the engine compartment and the men were in the front of the boat. They had planned to cruise to Boothbay Harbor, he said.
Grimes described the incident as a fuel vapor explosion, which occurred about 9:30 a.m. just off the Gardiner boat landing.
Mike Cleary, of Waterville, had just finished helping his father launch a large houseboat and was tying the lines to the Gardiner dock when he saw the other boat in the middle of the river.
“I heard a pop, and pieces of the guy’s boat were dropping in the water,” Clearly said. “I knew it wasn’t fireworks. Then a second explosion blew the hatch off and ignited a big fire.”
Finally he saw a man push a woman off the boat into the river, and he knew rescue was needed.
“I’m a captain, so I have training when there’s men overboard,” he said. Knowing his father’s boat would be too slow, Cleary sprinted toward a fast boat that had just been launched and was tied to the dock.
“I told the guy, ‘Sorry, I’m going to save those people,'” Cleary said. The boater started the engine and they headed out.
Terry Malloy, of Augusta, who was fishing near the landing for stripers at that time, said the people had launched the boat and drifted out into the channel.
“I heard a loud bang and explosion and heard everybody hollering, ‘Get off the boat! Get off the boat!'” Malloy said.
He called 911 for help, then watched as the flaming boat headed south, downriver, and drifted ashore in Pittston just beyond the Randolph town line.
Cleary said he yelled for the people to get off the boat, and then to swim away from it because they were clinging to it in the water.
Two men in a fishing boat tossed life preservers to the swimmers. “One lady was really thankful, because she couldn’t swim,” Cleary said.
Cleary said the two women suffered burns, and the rescuers put some ice on them.
“I’m so thankful they weren’t sitting on the engine compartment,” Cleary said.
Marine Patrol Sgt. Rene Cloutier said the fire could have originated when some gasoline ended up in the bilge during fueling and was ignited by a spark from starting the engine.
Ventilating the bilge by either running a blower fan or by opening the compartment is the usual safety precaution.
“Be sure it’s well ventilated,” Cloutier said.
Firefighters from Randolph and Pittston used foam through hoses to put out the blaze on the fiberglass boat.
More than an hour after the explosion, the formerly white boat was gray and black and tied up on a point of land belonging to Gordon Kimball, of Pittston.
Investigators from the fire marshal’s office and Cloutier were discussing how the boat could be removed from the river. An employee of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection also came to investigate.
Pittston Deputy Fire Chief Tom Bartunek and Randolph Fire Chief Ron Cunningham said the foam used on the boat fire is biodegradable and poses no threat to the river or wildlife. Neither longtime firefighter had fought a boat fire previously.
Betty Adams — 621-5631