Delong Dock Fire | Glacier City Gazette
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Delong Dock Fire

Delong Dock Fire

Photo courtesy of Coast Guard Sector Anchorage
Damage captured after an explosion and subsequent fire at Delong Dock in Whittier, Alaska, July 8, 2019. The pier, including three cranes, nearby structures, vehicles and the commercial fishing vessel Alaganik were damaged in the fire.

Whittier’s Insurance Coverage in Question

By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette

Around 11:40 p.m. on July 7, Whittier’s Delong Dock was engulfed in flames after a fixed barge caught fire, spreading to the dock and the Alaganik, a 99-foot commercial fishing vessel. There was one fatality.

The fire burned for three hours before it was extinguished. Volunteers risked their vessels to pull the burning vessel and barge from the dock; both sank in 85 feet of water. Whittier Fire Department sent five responders who were later assisted by Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel Fire Department and Girdwood Volunteer Fire and Rescue.

Whittier’s City Manager Jim Hunt declared a week-long state of emergency on July 15 to address the damage as beyond the control of the city. Money will be drawn from the Whittier Small Boat Harbor reserve. Whittier City Council (WCC) will need to ratify the emergency proclamation to extend it past seven days. The following evening, WCC held its regularly scheduled meeting.

During the Mayor’s Report, Mayor Daniel Blair made a prepared statement about the fire.

“On the final minutes of July 7th,” Blair read, “Whittier was rocked by an explosion on Delong Dock that resulted in the death of a fisherman. Our hearts and prayers go out to his family for this loss. The Whittier volunteers and first responders performed admirably. In some cases, it was family members of these first responders giving the extra assist to make sure our firefighters were awakened and able to respond. This was indeed a team effort of our community, and one that did not stop with our firefighters, but continued on to other community members who turned out of their beds to serve up snacks to people who evacuated to the school to escape the smoke. Words do not express the pride of how our community responded, pulled up their sleeves and dealt with the situation at hand. Whittier did not have to depend on outside help, but we were indeed grateful that it did arrive, both the state with the tunnel fire engine and Girdwood. Thank you very much community.”

Then Blair acknowledged the time, effort and training that allowed Whittier personnel to respond the way they did. Blair later thanked the boaters and commercial fishermen that responded, put their vessels in harm’s way, and provided a margin of safety to the fire fighters.

“The response from Whittier volunteers was timely,” said Vice-Mayor Peter Denmark. “It was effective. The behaviors were brave. That could have gone a different way, and even though there is a tragedy involved, this could have been much, much worse. Kudos to all the volunteers in town. Their behaviors were admirable. It makes me proud to be a part of this community.”

Assistant City Manager Annie Reeves presented a Letter of Commendation for Whittier’s responders.

Reeves read, “City of Whittier Volunteer firefighters, of which there are only five on the scene, were able to contain 90 percent of the flames until fire fighting units from Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel and Girdwood were on site. For your selfless behavior in responding on extreme short notice, for your excellent teamwork and judgment in how to contain and combat the danger and keep our city safe, thank you. We owe you our lives and our property.”

Speaking with Reeves, Hunt said they are learning lessons about community communication from the response. There was no way to contact community members quickly about the sudden dangers the fire presented and how to respond. They are looking to review and revise current processes and put current information on the Whittier webpage.

“We recognized the fact we didn’t have the mechanism or medium to communicate to get as many people informed as quick as possible,” Hunt said, “and that was regarding the smoke and the fumes because we didn’t know petrochemicals were in there.”

Hunt said he communicated with the attorneys and sunken vessel owners demanding the wreckage leaking fuel be removed.

“The vessel rests upside down,” Hunt said, “kind of cattywompus, at low tide the draft or clearance differential will go to about 15 feet. It’s not going to enter upon our tidelands. It needs to be salvaged right there on site. It’s still a hazard right now where it is.”

Denmark noted the extent of the leaking fuel saying, “There is a significant fuel sheen going with the tide all the way out to Emerald Point and into the head of the bay. It is leaching fuel continually. We’re detecting it in differing degrees of concentration as far out as Emerald Cove. The beach that 90 percent of all of the kayaks use, it’s all day.”

Hunt then addressed who owns the land where the vessel is resting, saying it is currently on land owned by Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The land was supposed to be transferred to the city along with the dock, but the parcel was not included. Hunt said he was working with DNR to remove the sunken vessel.

Council Member Dave Dickason asked how the insurance situation looked moving forward, and the response revealed Whittier’s compounding problems.

Hunt explained the issue saying, “The city changed insurance carriers. There’s APEI (Alaska Public Entity Insurance) and there’s AML-JIA (Alaska Municipal League Joint Insurance Association). You had an incident here, and I don’t remember the dollar value to the dock, and it was discovered that there is no coverage of the dock. When that [insurance policy] was initially done, the boxes weren’t checked. That is why that particular dock wasn’t scheduled. It was missed.”

The incident happened when The Endeavor was caught in a windstorm and damaged the dock’s rails. Nobody was on watch, and the city manager was unaware. APEI sent out an adjuster, and Whittier received a letter stating the Delong Dock is not scheduled on the insurance. APEI acknowledged the accident that was never reported or followed up on. Hunt wants to work with firm and pursue the funds.

“As of today,” Hunt said, “the first thing I said was, ‘I want the schedule.’ It slipped through the cracks. I’m speechless now after the first accident. Certain personnel and APEI didn’t call us up and say ‘this should be on here and anything else?’”

City Attorney Anmei Goldsmith saw the APEI letter saying Delong Dock is not covered, but said she has her doubts. She is working on collecting all of the facts and looking into the contract.

‘We have other folks in the firm who have a lot of experience with insurance matters and coverage” Wells said. “It can get complicated, but there may be an argument. There may have been an email or phone call from city administration to APEI saying that the Delong is on our insurance policy. It could be that APEI messed up, or it could be confusion about which dock was covered because there’s the City Dock, there’s the Delong Dock. The Delong Dock would be a new asset. There’s some confusion there. It’s not cut and dry that it’s not on the schedule.”

Goldsmith is looking to convince APEI that Delong Dock is covered and noted insurance funds would also come from the sunken vessels’ policies.

“There is going to have to be an investigation,” Goldsmith said. “The insurance adjusters will do their thing, but it certainly seems that the vessel owners will have liability and that their insurance policies [will too]. That would also be a source of funds.”

Blair said a study of Delong Dock’s current status is an estimated $50-60,000 in damage.

Hunt said full evaluation of the damage is estimated in the $150,000-180,000 range.

Marc Donadieu / Glacier City Gazette
Delong Dock is the primary location commercial fishermen offload their catch.

Marc Donadieu / Glacier City Gazette
Delong Dock