EASTPORT, Maine — A “catastrophic failure” very early Thursday morning caused a large section of the Eastport breakwater to collapse into the inner harbor, injuring one man, sinking a boat and damaging numerous other vessels.
While local officials estimated damages in the millions of dollars, they also said they were thankful the portion of the pier collapsed at 2 a.m. rather than 6 a.m., when more fishermen would have been on their boats or working on the breakwater. At least 50 feet of the breakwater collapsed.
“We’re all grateful that there are no serious injuries,” interim Eastport City Manager Elaine Abbott said. “It could have been dozens of fishermen. This had the potential to have far more significant impact.”
The city owns the breakwater, which Abbott said is “absolutely vital” to local fishermen, but the Eastport Port Authority manages it. Port Authority Director Chris Gardner said late Thursday morning that Pat Donahue, a local fisherman and caretaker of the 1923 schooner Ada C. Lore, had been sleeping on the boat when a portion of the pier collapsed. Donahue injured his leg and went to a Calais hospital for treatment after the incident.
“We are very pleased to say that [Donahue] is already back out on a fishing boat,” Gardner said. “Hardy folk, I’ll tell you.”
Before he went to the hospital, Donahue told Tom McLaughlin of WQDY-FM that the sound of the pier crumbling woke him up.
“I came up on the deck, and I got my stuff, and I was going to leave with my dog,” he told McLaughlin. “[Then] it fell on the boat, and all was chaos.”
Although his pickup truck, which had been parked on the pier, went into the water, Donahue’s dog was OK, according to the radio station.
The breakwater was built in the 1960s using sheets of metal that were pile driven into the harbor floor to create boxes that were filled with dirt. Then the top of those boxes was paved over, creating a driveable surface and parking area, according to Gardner.
On Thursday, “the interior parts collapsed, dumping the contents in the ocean,” he said.
A video released by Coast Guard Station Eastport shows electrical sparks and explosions occurring about 2 a.m. as the central portion of the pier collapses into the water. Then in the foreground, a large wave violently rocks the fishing boats moored in the inner basin.
While investigators will have to determine exactly why the pier collapsed, many people were well aware that the breakwater needed some work.
“This facility was scheduled for rebuild, and it just went out for bid a week ago,” Gardner said. “We had hoped it was going to go out sooner.”
The majority of the $11 million replacement project was going to be funded by a $6 million federal Department of Transportation grant, with the rest of the money coming from the Maine Department of Transportation and the city of Eastport.
In a grant application from June 2013, the Maine DOT described the breakwater as “a vital economic component to the local and regional community” and essential to the economic recovery of the rural, economically distressed region. The 400-foot-long L-shaped breakwater and pier provides deep-water berthing for cruises ships, cargo vessels, fishing boats, yachts, and U.S. Navy and Coast Guard boats.
Because the structure also protect’s Eastport’s inner harbor and marina, it’s referred to as a breakwater.
“The condition of the breakwater has deteriorated over the last 20 years and is now in a state of disrepair and reduced structural capacity,” the Maine DOT said.
The steel sheet metal walls have corroded, making underwater holes, and the fill material behind the walls has been coming out, according to the Maine DOT. The existing deterioration already had caused the Maine DOT to reduce weight limits on the structure to 1 ton or less.
“The extent and severity of the deterioration is now beyond any repair program,” the state agency said.
On Thursday, in addition to the Ada C. Lore, which is used for whale watching cruises, the scallop dragger Double Trouble was significantly damaged. The Medric, a pilot boat used by the port authority, sank and remained on the bottom of the harbor Thursday morning, Gardner said. Some of the other 20-25 boats tied up in the inner basin were damaged in the incident, too, he said.
“Right now our most immediate concern is taking care of the damaged vessels and taking whatever steps are reasonable and necessary to accommodate the remaining fishing fleet,” he said. “Scallop season just started.”
He said he got to the scene shortly after 2 a.m., because he was immediately contacted by Eastport Fire Chief Richard Clark, who also is the operations manager for the port authority.
“He advised me of the situation and I came in. It’s been quite a morning,” Gardner said. “I cannot stress enough that our major concern is the fishing fleet.”
He said repairing the pier would cost millions of dollars, but he did not yet have an estimate for repairing the damaged vessels.
Abbott said the breakwater is insured.
On Thursday morning, the scene there was hectic, she and Gardner said, with many organizations working to salvage the fleet and figure out next steps. Along with Eastport city officials, the port authority and the U.S. Coast Guard, crews from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection also were working at the breakwater.
“It is a tremendous response,” Gardner said.
BDN writer Ryan McLaughlin contributed to this report.