Longshoreman Laurence Byers was on a coffee break at Squamish Terminals on Howe Sound around 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 16, when he and his colleagues saw smoke coming from a dock with a ship berthed next to it.
"It was way down the other end of the dock and we realized that we wouldn't be going back to work because that was the ship I was working on. We hung around and the foremen were down at the ship trying to get some water on it all. After 10 minutes you couldn't even see the ship anymore, there was so much smoke," he said.
The dock, one of two at the terminals, was built from timbers soaked in flammable creosote as a preservative.
In the end, the entire dock went up and burned for three days, emitting billowing toxic smoke into the town and valley. It was 100 per cent contained by Sunday, April 19.
Squamish Fire Rescue arrived within minutes and stopped the flames from spreading to the ship — the Star Atlantic — and a nearby warehouse. Both were filled with chemically treated wood pulp.
The ship was eventually cut free from the dock. Byers said the crew had been dousing the ship to keep the fire at bay, though he said he saw scorch marks. It was later removed to English Bay in Vancouver.
Squamish had help from fellow fire rescue teams from Whistler and the Lower Mainland.
A longshoreman for 23 years at Squamish Terminals, Byers said he was concerned about the dock's stability prior to the fire.
"This is the old dock, it must be 40 years, I guess," he said.
"It was in bad repair."
Squamish Terminals vice president Kim Stegeman said in an interview that the dock had been built in 1972. She said the condition of the dock would be part of the investigation into the fire.
"We'd have to wait and see... it is uncertain at this point if that played a factor or not," Stegeman said.
She said the challenge in putting the fire out had been reaching the underside of the dock and access was dependent on the tide.
On Monday, April 20, Squamish Terminals said on its website that it would rebuild the dock to current industry standards, and would not use wood pilings.
"After any incident like this we will take a look at it and re-evaluate and see what we did well and what we could do better," she said.
She said there were onsite fire hydrants and fire suppression equipment under the dock. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
Stegeman couldn't comment on reports that a popping sound was heard coming from beneath the dock, where electrical wires ran. The fire is not considered suspicious. Sprinklers on the underside of the dock did deploy.
Squamish Terminals engaged Fraser River Pile & Dredge to dismantle the top of the berth to allow firefighters better access to the fire.
An air quality advisory that had been in place since Friday was lifted Sunday afternoon.
Vancouver Coastal Health's Drinking Water Officer was "confident" the fire posed no threat to the District of Squamish water supply systems.
"We are grateful there were no injuries... We're cooperating fully with inquiries," Stegeman said at a joint press conference April 17 with Squamish Fire Chief Bob Fulton and Squamish Mayor Patricia Heintzman.
Heintzman told media "one or two" people were taken to hospital with breathing issues as a result of the fire, but no serious injuries have been reported.
Squamish Terminals has resumed operations and expects to meet all commitments.
-With files from Brandon Barrett
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