HARTLAND — Christopher Gibson was ready to board a fellow boater who had run out of fuel Wednesday in the middle of Morrill Pond when his family’s Fourth of July fun suddenly burst into flames.

Gibson, 43, of Acworth, Georgia, and seven other people — all under the age of 16 — were rescued Wednesday after Gibson’s 18-foot 1997 Rinker motorboat caught fire and burned right to the water line.

“I said ‘hop on’ and just as I said that — boom — as soon as I said ‘get in,’ that’s when it happened,” Gibson said Thursday from their waterside camp that has been in his wife’s family for generations. “It like — I don’t know— backfired, back drafted, or something and the floor vent had flames coming out of it. That’s where my son was sitting and he has a little burn on his foot.

“I got everybody off the boat. There were a bunch of boats. I was making sure they got to someone’s boat so they could get to safety, then I jumped off.”

Gibson said he first opened the hatch at the rear of the boat and saw flames in the engine compartment, but it was already past saving. He said the boat was an older model, but had been retrofitted recently with a new engine, new interior and stereo system.

“It was fun,” said Gibson, noting that they were fully insured and no one was injured.

Meanwhile, Gibson’s wife, Crissy, seeing the fire from shore and hearing the shouts from across the lake, climbed onto the family’s jet ski and throttled it out fast to where everyone was in the water.

“I was just hanging out watching the kids tube and as soon as they yelled there was a fire, I jumped on the jet ski and got out there,” she said. “I saw all the kids in the water with my husband and the boat on fire. I grabbed two of the boys onto the jet ski.”

Crissy Gibson, 42, whose great-grandfather Ernest Chatfield built the camp on Morrill Pond out of logs in 1949, said she has been coming to Morrill Pond her entire life, just as her kids have every summer.

Her son, Ty Gibson, 15, who was in the boat, said the fire happened in the blink of an eye. He said all the kids had life vests on. Christopher Gibson was also towing another son, Luke, and his son’s friend, Benicio Root, on a tube behind the boat when the fire began, according to Game Warden Cpl. John MacDonald.

“I was in the front left seat,” Ty said. “We put it in reverse and then we heard a loud bang and I looked down and the floor was on fire — the whole engine and everything was like on fire. I screamed ‘Fire!’ and told everybody to get off, then I jumped off.

“We swam away from it. We didn’t know if it was going to explode or not because we just filled it up with a full tank of gas. It just burned. If it was a half tank of gas, it probably would have exploded because of fumes.”

His brother, Sean Gibson, 16, said he was burned slightly on the foot before he jumped in the water, which is about 50 feet deep in that part of the pond.

“I was sitting right over where it caught on fire,” he said. “I didn’t have any thoughts — I just dove in.”

MacDonald, at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said all eight people escaped without injury just before 3 p.m.

Members of Hartland Fire Department and Canaan Fire Department, as well as boaters on the water from all over the pond assisted in getting all eight people safely to shore before game wardens arrived at the scene. There were five separate calls to the Regional Communications Center in Skowhegan reporting the fire.

The cause of the fire has not been determined, but it appears to have started from within the engine compartment, MacDonald said in a news release.

Allissa Osbourne, 12, of Portland, said she was one of two girls on the boat when it caught fire.

“I was right in the front,” she said. “It was scary. I just jumped off. When it started catching on fire I got scared. A pontoon boat picked me up.”

Christopher Gibson said the most important thing was that nobody was injured.

“I don’t care about the boat. I just wanted to make sure everybody got off safe,” he said. “I’ve never experienced something like that. It was just that quick of an instant. You go from having fun on the lake to ‘abandon ship,’ and make sure everybody makes it home.

“We all jumped in and swam, then a neighbor came out, Crissy came out, and another neighbor came out. There was 20 boats out there. Everybody came to the rescue. The game wardens of Maine were awesome.”

Gibson said the burning boat was towed to the boat launch, where it flared up a couple times before being hauled to a storage facility.

“It’s done. It’s a bathtub,” he said of the boat.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]


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