By DONALD WITTKOWSKI and MADDY VITALE
Authorities confirmed Tuesday that a charter boat carrying 22 passengers struck the Townsends Inlet Bridge linking Sea Isle City and Avalon before taking on water and running aground.
All of the passengers were safely evacuated from the Starfish charter vessel and no injuries were reported in the accident at 5:30 p.m. Monday.
“We got a report that a commercial charter vessel, the Starfish, hit the (Townsends Inlet Bridge),” said Lt. Matthew Childs, public affairs officer for the U.S. Coast Guard. “The vessel struck the bridge and the captain of the vessel grounded the vessel to ensure the safety of the occupants.”
The Townsends Inlet Bridge, originally built in 1939 during the Great Depression as one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal infrastructure projects, provides a direct link between Sea Isle and Avalon. It is one of five toll bridges operated by the Cape May County Bridge Commission that connect the beach communities along the scenic Ocean Drive from Ocean City to Cape May.
Preliminary indications are that the bridge did not suffer significant damage, Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio said.
The accident remains under investigation by the Coast Guard to determine what led to the boat hitting the bridge and taking on water, authorities said
“Preliminarily, it appears that strong currents may have contributed to the accident,” Desiderio said in a statement. “When it occurred, the pilot put out a distress call, which was responded to by several boats in the area, which assisted in helping get over 20 passengers off the boat.”
Childs credited one boater in particular for guiding all 22 passengers safely off the charter vessel after responding to the accident.
The Coast Guard does not know who that person is, but Childs wanted to give thanks to the boater for helping with the rescue.
“We want to give kudos to the good Samaritan who essentially rescued these people who were on board in distress. To save all these people, the mariner deserves our best,” Childs said.
Meanwhile, the Starfish remained grounded Tuesday in shallow water in a channel several hundred yards from the Yacht Club of Sea Isle City off Venicean Road. The bow appeared to have sustained significant damage.
A marine towing company that responded to the accident has placed a patch on a hole in the Starfish while efforts are being made to refloat the charter boat, Childs said.
Starfish Boats, a company that is docked at the marina in Sea Isle at 42nd Place, specializes in fishing charters and cruises. The company issued a statement about the accident on its Facebook page, saying that it intends to return the Starfish to service.
“Thank you for the kind messages, calls and comments we have received so far regarding the incident (Monday) afternoon. We are hopeful. However the boat does have damage and will be inoperable for some time. All passengers, mate and captain are okay.”
The company further said that it will reach out to passengers who had upcoming scheduled trips.
“We will be back!” the statement said.