Cars could begin coming off the state ferry LeConte today, and a salvage boat is expected to arrive Saturday to work to get the vessel out of Peril Strait.
Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Dan Buchsbaum said late Thursday the diesel fuel had been removed from storage tanks. The fuel remaining on board and needed for ongoing operations is stored near the center of the ship, where it poses little environmental risk, he said.
The ferry has been stuck on Cozian Reef, about 30 miles north of Sitka, since it ran aground Monday morning during an Alaska Marine Highway System run between Angoon and Sitka. Buchsbaum said three anchors are helping to keep it in place.
The Coast Guard is still investigating why the LeConte hit the reef, which is marked on navigational charts in a place well-traveled by the marine highway.
"They're still collecting evidence and documentation," Buchsbaum said. One piece of evidence that could prove particularly helpful is the voyage data recorder, which recorded the conversations of crew members on the bridge. It is similar to the cockpit recorders long used in investigations of plane crashes.
Investigators announced Wednesday that all crew members on watch at the time of the incident tested negative for alcohol use.
The 23-member crew evacuated the 86 passengers to lifeboats. About 15 cars remain on the LeConte. Buchsbaum said the cars are slated for removal after the fuel.
"It looks like that will happen before that salvager gets here," he said.
Plans call for the cars to be off-loaded to a barge.
The unified command formed in response to the grounding, which includes the Coast Guard, marine highway and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation officials, looked at a salvage plan Thursday afternoon, Buchsbaum said. Crowley Marine, the company contracted for the job, was sailing the American Salvor from Washington state. It was expected around midday Saturday.
"They don't have anything yet on how long (the salvage effort) will take," he said. As of Thursday, plans called for repairs to the hull to be made after it comes off the reef.
Speaking to members of the media Wednesday, Coast Guard Cmdr. John Stifling said the full extent of the damage may not be known until the LeConte comes off the rocks.
Divers working outside the ferry will repair it to the point where it can be towed into port for repairs, Buchsbaum said.
About 14 people have been working on the ferry and looking after the cars at any given time, he said. In addition to removing fuel from the storage tanks, they began Thursday to remove the lubricating oils and solid waste.
Tony Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.