While officials investigate ferry fire, others reflect on the day their community joined forces to help

While officials investigate ferry fire, others reflect on the day their community joined forces to help

A firefighter who was one of the first on the scene when the MV Holiday Island ferry caught fire Friday says he is "absolutely amazed" there were no serious injuries.

Tyler Spencer, captain of the Murray River Fire Department, said there were a few tense moments, but the community worked well together to rescue the more than 200 people on board.

Several fire departments from across P.E.I. responded to the call, as well as the Coast Guard and other services, all doing their part to make sure the passengers were safe.

"I'm absolutely amazed that we didn't have any serious injuries," he said.

"It's just fantastic that we were able to respond like that and have everybody go home safely that night."

Treena MacLeod, owner of nearby Treena's Takeout, said people were handing out water and other items. Everyone wanted to help, she said, including her staff.

Kate McKenna/CBC
Kate McKenna/CBC

They offered free beverages as well as french fries, poutine and ice cream to first responders who arrived quickly and may not have brought their wallets.

"Everybody was scrambling," MacLeod said.

"We just joined the team. Everybody was full force, helping each other out. We just got through the day."

We just joined the team. Everybody was full force, helping each other out. — Treena MacLeod

When Spencer arrived on scene, he saw a parking lot full of cars with people who had been waiting to board the ferry to go to Nova Scotia, and the ferry out in the water with smoke billowing out of its stacks.

"Not a sight that I would ever want to see again," he said.

The fire was contained to the engine room, which has an emergency mechanism to release carbon dioxide to smother a fire should one break out.

Spencer said the fire crews decided not to open the doors of the engine room to prevent more oxygen from entering, fuelling the fire and potentially causing it to spread to other parts of the ship, even causing the ferry to sink.

Instead, they focused on cooling off the deck and a nearby fuel tank, and evacuating the passengers.

"There was just a lot of what-ifs that we didn't want to contend with so we figured it was best to get everybody to the safety of land and assess the situation," he said.

Though everyone got off safely, the fire continued to smoulder for more than 24 hours after those efforts.

John Dalziel, who worked for 50 years in ship construction and repair supervision and was a safety inspector for Transport Canada Marine Safety, said it should have been extinguished sooner.

"If you can seal the engine room, and you flood it with carbon dioxide, the fire should go out. And the fact that the fire continued so long suggests that maybe it didn't work as well as it should have. And certainly when they have a chance to look at this more closely they can evaluate why that happened."

The damage to the 51-year-old ferry still needs to be assessed. Don Cormier, vice-president of Northumberland Ferries, said the insurance company and the owner, the federal government, will decide if it's a write-off.

Future of ferry in doubt

Gloria Shaw, the manager of the Wood Islands lighthouse who has deep roots in the community, said it's hard not to be discouraged.

"It's really like watching it die. It's like a death because you wonder if it'll ever be able to be repaired and come back from this. Seeing that I grew up here and it's all been part of my life, it's sad. It is."

But she, like others in the community, is just happy everyone managed to get out safely and she was proud to do her part.

As for MacLeod, she said helping out that day was a "no-brainer."

"We had to participate. We feel this is a great community and we're happy to be here."