A Juneau District Court judge on Friday fined American West Steamboat Co. $50,000 under a state pollution statute for grounding the Empress of the North near Glacier Bay in May 2007.
With the help of the U.S. Coast Guard and Good Samaritan vessels, 281 passengers and crew were evacuated from the ship that night on May 13. The ship was damaged, but no one was injured. Witnesses saw a sheen on the water and the company admitted some fuel spilled, but it's not known how much.
But it could have been far worse, Assistant Attorney General Daniel Cheyette said.
"These were not small mistakes. These were huge mistakes by the captain and the mate assigned to watch," he said.
American West Steamboat, which operates as the Majestic America Line, pleaded guilty to violating the state's pollution statute. It is owned by Seattle-based Ambassadors Cruise Group.
The National Transportation Safety Board's investigation report tells the story.
On May 13, the Empress of the North was heading from Lynn Canal to Icy Strait, located 20 miles southwest of Juneau. It was 1:30 a.m., and the captain had put a 22-year-old officer in his first day on the job on navigation watch, because the crew member who would ordinarily do it was ill.
The new crew member had gotten his Coast Guard license just 16 days earlier, when he graduated from maritime academy, and had just boarded the Empress. He didn't know the route, how the ship handled or the equipment on the ship's bridge, according to the federal investigators. The the other bridge officer, a helmsman, was more experienced, but it was the younger man's responsibility to navigate. The crewmen weren't named in the report.
"We had agreed that it was an easy watch, much easier than (the) Snake River or the Columbia River, even, and one, two, three - three course changes, fairly easy," another ship's officer later told investigators.
"I felt comfortable enough to be up there," the junior third mate told them, knowing he could give the captain a call, though he never did.
The Empress was heading south at about 12 knots. The bridge officers knew they needed to steer around Rocky Island, a charted rock, and they saw its green flashing light.
The helmsman began to turn without instruction, and the junior third mate lost sight of the green light; then gave his first instruction - "Hard left."
The Empress struck submerged rocks on its right side, then floated free.
The engineer heard a "strange, grounding, nasty vibration, like we just ran over an island," for five seconds along the length of the Empress. The propellers had stopped.
Within 15 seconds the captain arrived on the bridge. A transcript of the bridge recording captured the hectic aftermath.
Captain: "What was that? What was that?"
Unknown voice: "That was the rocks, sir."
Captain: "The rocks," said the captain. "Stop."
Helmsman: "Stop stop stop."
Captain: "We got to call the Coast Guard ... hold it, hold it here."
The Empress listed to the right. Submerged rocks breached the fuel tank, and the ship began to take on water. As the crew controlled the flooding, the ship righted itself. The passengers were taken to the state ferry boat Columbia.
Majestic America Line officials estimated the Empress's repair at $4.8 million.
After the grounding, Majestic America fired the captain, and the Coast Guard suspended his license for five months.
It wasn't the Empress's first grounding. The ship had grounded three other times on river cruises in the Lower 48 since it was built in 2003.
But Cheyette, the state's prosecutor, described the case against the company as being for the 2007 incident, not for any pattern of problems.
American West was sentenced in federal court to 18 months' probation for the incident. But it's unlikely the company will offend again anytime soon, because it isn't operating cruises.
Ambassador Cruise Group, the parent company, surrendered the Empress to the U.S. Maritime Administration last year, according to Ambassador's recent financial filing. As to why, a company spokesman did not respond to calls.Meanwhile, Ambassador has been trying to sell the Majestic America Line's assets since early last year, which includes five other ships, and no Majestic cruises will be operating this year.
• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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