Passengers depart stricken ferry

Posted: Wednesday, June 07, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- All 434 passengers were transferred off the state ferry Columbia after an engine fire left the vessel dead in the water Tuesday.

Passengers walked off the Columbia onto the ferry Taku via the car decks after the two vessels lashed up bow to bow and stern to stern. The Taku was expected into Juneau at about 8 p.m. Tuesday.

The fire broke out shortly after noon, destroying the ship's electrical distribution system, said Ray Massey, a Coast Guard spokesman. Crew members extinguished the blaze, but it flared up again 45 minutes later.

''Their electrical system is basically fried,'' Massey said.

Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Kurt Parkan said there were no injuries among the passengers or the 63 crew members.

The Coast Guard Cutter Anacapa, based in Petersburg, was on its regular law enforcement patrol and arrived at the scene to assist the stricken vessel. Massey said a Coast Guard chopper from Sitka ferried additional firefighters to the scene.

The Columbia was southbound from Juneau to Sitka and eventually Bellingham, Wash., when the fire broke out. Parkan said the Taku had only 93 people on board when it was diverted from its Sitka-to-Hoonah sailing.

Massey described the weather in Chatham Strait as low clouds and calm winds. Massey said passengers were allowed to take pets and pocketbooks but no baggage.

Parkan said Columbia passengers will spend the night in Juneau on board the Taku or the Malaspina, the ferry that operates as a day boat between Juneau, Haines and Skagway.

''It's going to be very full,'' Parkan said. ''The Red Cross has offered spaces for the overflow.''

Parkan said tugs will move the Columbia to Juneau where passengers will be able to retrieve their luggage and vehicles. Tugs can move the vessel at about 3 knots and it was expected into Juneau by 7 a.m.

''We're working on arranging to get them on future sailings,'' Parkan said of the Columbia passengers.

The Columbia will then be towed to the Ketchikan Ship Yard for repairs.

Parkan had no indication when the Columbia could come back on line.

''It's not going to be as difficult, I don't think, as if it was a major mechanical failure,'' Parkan said.

But taking the ferry off line will crimp the Marine Highway System's earnings.

''It's our most lucrative run,'' Parkan said. ''The Columbia has always been a moneymaker. It gets us through the lean times. Hopefully, we'll get it back on line soon.''

The Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office and the state fire marshal will investigate the cause of the fire, Massey said.

The Columbia is the largest vessel of the Marine Highway fleet. Launched by Lockheed Shipbuilding in Seattle in 1974, the Columbia is 418 feet long, with capacity for 625 passengers and 134 vehicles. It is also the Alaska Marine Highway's fastest vessel, operating at a service speed of 17.3 knots.

The ship has 91 total cabins, a dining room, cafeteria, gift shop, cocktail lounge, solarium, and observation lounge.

The Taku is 352 feet long, with listed capacity of 69 vehicles and 450 passengers.

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