State ferry breaks loose, grounds near Metlakatla

Vessel refloated with minor spill after wind blew it off mooring

Posted: Sunday, February 01, 2009

METLAKATLA - High winds blew a state ferry off its mooring and onto a small island Friday but the vessel was refloated with only a minor spill.

The 181-foot ferry Lituya broke loose from a pier in Metlakatla, the southernmost city on the Alaska Panhandle, and ran aground less than a mile north on tiny Scrub Island.

The vessel listed as much as 15 degrees but was refloated with help from tug boats a half hour before high tide Friday afternoon, responders said.

The Lituya makes a morning and afternoon run daily between Metlakatla, a city of 1,400 on the west coast of Annette Island, and Ketchikan, which with nearby Saxman has a population of more than 13,000, mostly on Revillagigedo Island.

The Lituya can carry up to 18 vehicles and 149 passengers.

State Department of Transportation spokesman Roger Wetherell said it was not known what caused the ferry to loosen from its mooring but the area has been hammered by severe weather since early December, including 3 feet of snow during one weekend last month.

"That's unprecedented for that part of Southeast," he said.

On Friday, heavy rain fell, seas were 6-8 feet and the wind was blowing at 26 miles per hour with gusts that exceeded 80 mph. The ferry broke from its mooring at about 1 a.m.

The crew is based in Metlakatla and no one was on board.

A Metlakatla Police Department officer on patrol was surprised to see that the ferry was missing from its berth, but it didn't get far. It had drifted about 3,600 feet to the east side of Scrub Island.

Crews from the Alaska Marine Highway System, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Coast Guard responded. Inspectors spotted damage to a keel cooler and a stabilizer fin.

Wetherell said the ship carried an estimated 7,000 gallons of No. 2 diesel fuel and a 75-by-5-foot sheen was spotted around the vessel. The fuel apparently did not come from a breach in the hull.

"It was basically a burp from the vents when the vessel listed," said Coast Guard Lt. Brierley Ostrander.

At about 7 a.m., the ferry's skipper, Capt. Steve Booth, and the ferry's chief engineer boarded the ship, deactivated the generator and secured all watertight doors, Wetherell said. They also shut the fuel vent.

The ship at that time had a 9 degree list. As the tide dropped, the list increased to 15 degrees, Wetherell said.

Southeast Alaska Petroleum Resource Organization placed containment boom around the Lituya and transferred about 550 gallons of fuel to a barge.

Responders waited for the tide to return and a tug put a line on the ferry to keep it from shifting out of control as the water rose.

A half hour before high tide, at 2:10 p.m., the ferry shifted and the tugs Cape Muzon and Ethan B pulled it off the rocks.

Divers reviewed the hull to make sure there were no breaches, Wetherell said. The recovery plan called for tugs to tow the ferry to Ketchikan for repairs.

Ostrander said the Coast Guard had just finished a three-day training session in Juneau with "port partners" and some were involved with the response to the grounding.

The training paid off, she said. "It's been a good day for us."

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