NTSB probe puts blame on state for ferry fire

Posted: Thursday, October 04, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- A fire aboard the ferry Columbia, which cost the state more than $2 million, could have been avoided by a better inspection program, the National Transportation Safety Board said.

The NTSB also faulted the Alaska Marine Highway System for its fire training in a report recently released on a fire last year aboard the state's largest ferry.

An electrical switchboard on the Columbia caught fire on June 6, 2000 while in the Chatham Strait on its way to Sitka. The ship's 435 passengers were evacuated to the ferry Taku and the blaze was extinguished.

No one was injured in the fire but three passengers with pre-existing medical conditions were evacuated by the Coast Guard.

The blaze caused $2 million in damages to the Columbia, the AMHS told NTSB investigators.

It also cost the ferry system an estimated $2.5 million in revenues since the ship had to be repaired at the height of the tourist season, said Capt. George Capacci, general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System.

The NTSB said the likely cause of the blaze was an arc between connections on the switchboard, either from a faulty connection or from an object falling on electrical bus bars.

The federal agency concluded the state should have supervised and inspected shipyard work done on the Columbia prior to the fire.

The agency also faulted the ferry system for providing inadequate fire training to crewmembers and described some crew reactions as ''somewhat haphazard and improvised.''

The chief engineer sent two crew members into the burning control room without protective clothing, the report said. An assistant engineer also opened two circuit breakers by hitting them with a flashlight, the report said.

The ferry system should improve its inspection process and revise procedures for accepting work performed by contractors, the NTSB said.

It should also include engineroom fires in its prefire plan for vessels and conduct drills for crews on fighting engineroom fires, the NTSB said.

Capacci challenged some of the findings, saying a state manager did inspect work performed on the electrical systems prior to the fire. Other inspections were also performed, he said.

The ferry system intends to write a detailed response to the NTSB, Capacci said.

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