It was a busy Saturday on Warwick Cove with boaters headed to distant places such as Block Island and Cuttyhunk for the long weekend.
Jerry English had been pumping gas at Warwick Cove Marina pretty much all day when the activity slowed down and 57-year-old Gerald Bergeuine Jr. – who keeps and has lived on his boat at the marina for the last year – pulled in for gas.
English pumped the gas and Bergeuine was preparing to pull away from the gas dock. English remembers hearing the engine turn over, yet it didn’t start. It kept stalling. He was prepared to cast off the bowline when Bergeuine was ready.
That never happened.
“It backfired,” said English, who also described the event as “an explosion.” Almost instantly the boat was engulfed in flames and black smoke.
Bergeuine was blown out of the wheelhouse, but he had been burned. He raced to spray himself down with the water hose on the dock while English grabbed two of the three large fire extinguishers he keeps at the ready just inside the office door.
English feared the worst – a fire spreading to the dock and other boats. He was able to “knock down” the fire, although once fiberglass is burning it is hard to put it out.
Meanwhile, a Safe Sea vessel (Safe Sea Newport) was in the harbor channel. Safe Sea provides services to boaters that are similar to what AAA offers for motorists.
“The real hero is the kid from Safe Sea,” English said. With the craft still burning, Safe Sea towed it to the middle of the channel and anchored it, giving time for Warwick firefighters to respond. The department’s fireboat is kept at the adjoining Fairwinds Marina.
Safe Sea radioed City Harbormaster Jeff Baris of a “gas fume explosion at the dock,” and he immediately made the call to the Fire Department. When Baris arrived, Marine 4 was dousing the boat, which was fully engulfed with flames.
“It could have really been a bad thing,” English said of the incident.
From his description, however, even with firefighters on the scene the danger was far from over. He said firefighters, while spraying water on the boat, attempted to take it in tow. The burning craft drifted close to boats berthed at Harbor Lights Marina. English thought one or more of those boats might also catch fire.
Baris said he towed the boat to the outer harbor, where firefighters continued spraying it before beaching it near the Oakland Beach city boat ramp.
The city Department of Public Works was also quick to respond. Baris said a front-end loader and another piece of equipment with “jaws” along with a dump truck responded to the city dock parking lot.
Baris said once the fire marshal granted his approval, the DPW crew went to work pulling apart the 30-foot vessel and loading it into the truck.
“We didn’t want to leave it on the beach,” Baris said.
He said in about an hour everything was cleaned up.
“It’s like it never happened,” he said.
Bergeuine was rushed to Rhode Island Hospital, where he is being treated for burns to both legs.
He said Monday that earlier on Saturday he had taken some kids fishing and on returning to the dock was looking to replenish the fuel he’s used. He had started one engine and was attempting the start the second when it exploded.
He was distraught to learn of what became of his boat – a 1971 Uniflite – which he had worked on meticulously. He said he has difficulty walking and he does not know when he might be discharged.
He said he’s not seeking publicity.
At the moment, he said, “I’m not worrying about tomorrow.”