NORWALK, Conn. -- As the rain pelted and winds gusted at their strongest yet Monday, a half-dozen cops and firefighters in this seaside town puzzled over what to do about a 110-foot, three-story riverboat called the Island Belle.
It's been tied up in Norwalk's harbor, with some controversy, for nearly two years. And Hurricane Sandy's winds were threatening to break the enormous boat loose from its pilings, which could have sent it plummeting into a seafood restaurant or other nearby docks across the river.
The pilings for the dock were already bent significantly by mid-afternoon, and the driving winds were putting continuous pressure on the gigantic boat.
Norwalk police Chief Thomas Kulhawik said the city had asked the owner of the boat to move it in advance the storm, but that did not happen.
By early evening Monday, police and firefighters donning orange rain suits and yellow helmets were out in punishing winds, running extra lines out of the boat and fastening them to a sturdier main dock in hopes of preventing it from breaking loose. When that failed, emergency workers got a tow truck with steel cables to try repositioning the boat.
The original dock where the boat was attached still broke due to the pressure, Kulhawik said, and emergency workers had to cut all of the lines from the main dock to avoid destroying the whole thing.
The captain was on board the boat, and managed to redirect the vessel to an open space on the opposite side of the harbor, where workers tied it down again. Kulhawik said the motor was running on the boat, but wasn't powerful enough to go up against the wind and waves.
"The wind pushed it across, thankfully, into an open area, where there's an open parking lot," he said.
That will buy some time, but the pilings on the other side are much shorter than the original dock. That means as water rises, the lines could become unhooked from the dock. The hope, Kulhawik said, is that the boat will be pushed up into an adjoining parking area, and not out into the open harbor.
"We're looking at it, and we're going to see what happens," he said. "It's secure, until the water rises."
The riverboat was situated at the top of Norwalk harbor, a fairly narrow channel surrounded by commercial fishing docks, police boat docks, a seafood restaurant and a few sailboats.
"If that boat came loose, we'd have a major concern with commercial fishermen, the docks in that area, and the bridge," Kulhawik said.
Residents snapped photos on the nearby bridge and gawked at the immense party boat, built in the style of a Mississippi River paddlewheeler from the 1800s. As afternoon wore into evening and the waters began to rise, more than a dozen residents had come to watch the rescue operation unfold.
Hurricane Sandy isn't the first time the Island Belle has caused friction with the city of Norwalk. In recent months, city officials have pleaded with the owner, Sound Charter Group LLC, to get the boat out of the harbor, according to local newspaper The Hour.
The Army Corps of Engineers had told city officials that the boat was too large for Norwalk's harbor. The city sent a letter to the owner in September, asking for the vessel to be moved as soon as possible, according to the newspaper. A lawyer for the boat owners wrote back to say they were having trouble finding an alternate location, and asked for more time.