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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 22, 2007

Fishing boat explodes at Wai'anae harbor

 Photo gallery Exploding fishing boat photo gallery

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Wai'anae Coast Writer

The Nikki B, a fishing boat that exploded and injured its crew at Wai'anae Boat Harbor yesterday, was raised in two large pieces from the harbor bottom.

Photos by JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Officials from the Fire Department and Department of Land and Natural Resources investigators examine part of the fishing boat, which was brought up in two large pieces from the bottom of the Wai'anae harbor. Divers raised the sections to the surface using air bags.

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The teen who was untying the Nikki B when it exploded looks onto the water from the edge the boat ramp where the incident occurred.

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Peter Whitney

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Witnesses who saw a 22-foot fishing boat explode yesterday at the Wai'anae Boat Harbor say the blast shook the ground and blew people off their feet.

They described a scene of chaos at the harbor after the explosion, which was heard as far away as Poka'i Bay.

"It was like this boat blew up, and it was raining pieces of it down on us," said Michelle Koral, 27, a crew member on the Island Spirit tour boat, which was preparing to launch nearby. "It was scary; my heart was pounding."

"It was loud, stuff was shooting at least 30 feet in the air," said Makaha fisherman Harold Lovin, 61, who suffered minor cuts to his left forearm and back when he was struck by a flying chunk of the boat's windshield.

According to investigators, three men and a teenage boy were about to go out for a Saturday morning fishing excursion on the Nikki B when the explosion occurred. The three men were thrown into the air one landed on the pier, one in the water and the third back on the boat.

The teen was on the dock untying the boat when the blast occurred at around 6:30 a.m., they said.

Two of the men were taken to The Queen's Medical Center in serious condition. The third man and the teen were taken to the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center and treated for lesser injuries.

By the time the Honolulu Fire Department arrived five minutes after the explosion was reported, the burning Nikki B had sunk. But during the moments after the blast, people in the harbor sprang into action.

HEROES PITCH IN

Peter Whitney, 37, who was working with the Island Princess, a dolphin charter boat, said he reacted almost without thinking after the explosion, diving into the water and pulling one of the victims to shore.

That's when he and co-worker Charleston "Ku" Mahiai who had been slightly injured himself when the blast had thrown him into his own boat noticed one of the fishermen was still sitting on the boat even as the flames began to spread. People were yelling to him to get off the boat, but the man, who appeared dazed and had a broken leg, didn't move, they said.

"Everything happened so fast," Whitney said. "My friend Ku jumped in, and I was already in the water, so I swam over to help him because he was already hurt. Ku and I pulled that guy off the boat and got him out of the water."

Whitney said what was left of the boat was engulfed in flames, sending a mushroom of thick, black smoke wafting across the harbor as debris continued to rain down. Moments later, the boat went under.

Flaming debris continued to drift across the harbor toward the docked Dolphin Excursions 32-foot commercial pontoon craft. Kara Benson, captain of the Island Spirit, along with Koral and Denise Boatwright, another crew member, began cutting the excursion boat loose.

Commercial fisherman Carl Jellings was maneuvering his boat toward the dock, where he hooked the excursion craft and towed it safely out of harm's way.

"The gas tank, which was on fire, actually made it over to where our boat was docked," said Dolphin Excursions operator Ale Tolentino, who was on his way to the harbor when the explosion occurred. "If they hadn't got my boat out, we probably would have had a bigger explosion."

TWO IDENTIFIED

The owner of the Nikki B, who had landed on the pier, complained of not being able to feel anything in his legs. He later underwent surgery at Queen's.

"He may be paralyzed we don't know yet," said Calvin Nunies, a relative and business partner of the injured man who Nunies identified as Dencio Biliboa, 35. Nunies identified the man with the broken leg who landed on the boat as Romeo Gayacan, 52. He said he didn't know the identities of the other two members of the fishing party.

Nunies said Biliboa's family was keeping a vigil at the hospital.

"Something must be really wrong because they've got different doctors who keep coming in," he said late yesterday afternoon. "One person said he landed on the edge of the pier that he landed on that iron bar on the wharf when he came down from the air. That's when I knew he must have cracked his back."

Nunies said he suspected the explosion may have been caused by a gas leak.

Harbor Master William Aila said nothing like this has happened at the harbor in nearly two decades. Aila, who was the diver in charge of the harbor cleanup, said he found the boat in two large pieces on the harbor bottom. Divers brought both of those sections to the surface during the early afternoon using inflatable air bags.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources, with assistance from the fire department, is the lead agency handling the incident. The cause was still under investigation last night.

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.