Burning boat

A Redondo Beach Harbor Patrol boat assists two men who were on board a 36-foot wooden trawler that burned off Hermosa Beach, Monday, May 14. (Courtesy of Andre Zietsman)

Two men escaped injury after a boat they were in caught fire Monday morning off the coast near Hermosa Beach.

About 9:56 a.m., firefighters were dispatched to a spot more than a mile from the coast, according to Inspector Sal Alvarado of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. They found the vessel fully involved in fire, Alvarado said

Rick Jimenez and Alfons Von Ben Stemmen were on board the 1974 36-foot wooden trawler, they were taking the boat to Channel Islands Harbor for maintenance, they said.

“I ran down to get the fire extinguisher and sprayed it,” Jimenez said. “By the time I went down to get the second extinguisher, it was already billowing with smoke and you couldn’t see anything.”

A U.S. Coast Guard vessel and Baywatch Redondo also responded to the scene about a mile off the coast. When they approached, the boat was already on fire and another vessel had taken two men on board, according Petty Officer Mark Barney with the Coast Guard media office in Long Beach.

Palos Verdes Estates Police Department also responded.

Jimenez was at the helm on the upper deck, while Von Ben Stemmen was down below when Jimenez said he first smelled smoke. He said he put the boat into neutral to check it out and smoke was already filling the cabin.

“We thought maybe the fuel tank was next,” Von Ben Stemmen said. “That’s when we jumped and another boat was coming.”

Jimenez put out a distress call over the radio but did not hear back before the men decided to seek cover on the swim step at the rear of the vessel. Without even enough time to grab a life jacket, the men clung to the transom as two explosions rocked the vessel, blowing out cabin windows.

Andre Zietsman and his nephew Max Zietsman were fishing in the waters nearby when they spotted black smoke coming from the vessel. As the two men got closer on their 21-foot Wellcraft, they could see both victims sitting on the transom of the burning vessel, neither wearing life jackets.

“It was really hot,” Andre Zietsman said. “It was a complete inferno.”

The Zietsmans tossed the men life jackets. Von Ben Stemmen said he had difficulty swimming and needed help from his friend.

“Eventually the Coast Guard showed up and they put out the fire,” Andre Zietsman said.

As the boat was later towed into the harbor, the vessel sank, Jimenez said.

Barney, with the Coast Guard, said since the two victims were not wearing life jackets they were lucky to have rescuers nearby.

“That’s unfortunate,” he said. “If they had gone in the water earlier, who knows how the situation could have ended up.”

The fire department is working to determine the cause of the blaze.

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