Cruise ship runs aground

281 people evacuated from Empress of the North as aid rushes to Icy Strait

Posted: Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The 360-foot Empress of the North started listing when it ran aground near Icy Strait on Monday, but passengers Linda and Jack Starn kept calm.

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Packed into a ballroom with other guests in life jackets, they listened to a silver-haired piano player crooning oldies. The crowd sang along, Linda Starn said.

"It looked like a really bad remake of the Titanic," she said. "I was just sitting there, thinking, 'Oh my God. We're on the Titanic.'"

Within hours, all 281 people on board the Mississippi riverboat-style Juneau cruise ship had been transferred safely to the ferry Columbia. They were brought to Auke Bay and bused to Centennial Hall, where they were fed, cared for and interviewed by authorities.

One person, whose identity was not released, was taken to Bartlett Regional Hospital for treatment. No other injuries were reported.

The cause of the grounding was being investigated, and authorities declined to speculate about it. A team from the National Transportation Safety Board was expected to arrive in the evening and take over the investigation. An official ruling could take months.

The cruise ship's hull was damaged, but there was little pollution other than a "sheen" on the water, said Scot Tiernan, on-scene coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The ship had a capacity of 78,000 gallons of fuel but was carrying about 25,000, he said.

"There was no heavy discharge, which was fortunate," Tiernan said. "We were very lucky this morning."

Passengers and officials expressed amazement at how well the rescue and transfers went. Several "Good Samaritan" vessels responded at about 2 a.m. along with two Coast Guard cutters from Juneau, two helicopters from Sitka, a vessel from the Alaska State Troopers and the state ferry Columbia. On shore, rescue workers followed a city plan designed a few years ago for cruise ship disasters.

Mary Crosby, 83, of Seattle, said she and her 94-year-old cruise companion felt safe the whole time. They had been sleeping in their room when they were awakened by a sound like "an earthquake."

Crosby said the life jackets were uncomfortable, but she was impressed by the crew and the rescuers. She recorded the event on a hand-held video recorder.

"I consider it an adventure," she said.

Crosby, who was in a wheelchair, had a warning taped to her shoulders saying she had been treated for two torn rotator cuffs and had to be handled carefully.

The ship was two days into a seven-day trip when it grounded, officials said. It was motoring in Lynn Canal, heading to Bartlett Cove after visiting Skagway.

As it turned toward Icy Strait, it ran aground near Hanus Reef.

The Empress punctured its outer hull at the well-marked fishing spot, which has a daymarker and a light, said Lt. Don Kubley, of the 49th Brigade of the Alaska National Guard. Kubley was stationed at the incident command center for much of Monday morning.

"They shouldn't have been near (the reef)," Kubley said.

The reef, at the confluence of Icy Strait, Chatham Strait and Lynn Canal, is about 17 miles west of Hoonah and seven miles west of Mansfield Peninsula.

"Those are three huge bodies of water, and you have a 16-foot tide today, so you've got massive amounts of water converging at this one intersection," Kubley said. "That's some of the most treacherous water in Southeast Alaska."

The outer hull was flooded, but the water did not quite reach the inner hull or the cabins, Kubley said. The Empress ran northwest, where it pulled up near Rocky Island and Point Couverden.

At one point, the Empress was listing at 8 degrees - a perilous angle for a boat with low gunwales.

"With an 8 percent list, that water was coming pretty close to coming over the side," Kubley said. "With a big cruise ship, you've got 50 foot before you're touching water. With this, you've got 10 feet, eight feet. The thing about a list, if the wind and the waves are coming from the wrong direction, it'll go right over the side, and then you're done."

The ferry Columbia's night crew monitored radio chatter before waking Capt. Phil Taylor at about 3:30 a.m. He told the crew to head for the scene at full speed - 18.5 to 19 knots.

Soon after, the U.S. Coast Guard ordered the Columbia to pick up all the Empress passengers and take them to Auke Bay.

At that point, the Columbia was heading up the west side of Douglas Island in Stephens Passage. The Columbia steamed into Saginaw Channel, rounded Point Retreat and headed into Icy Strait.

It arrived at about 5:45 a.m. and found the Empress of the North refloated between Rocky Island and Hanus Reef.

By then all passengers had been evacuated to fishing boats and other vessels. One hundred-fifty were taken aboard the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Liberty.

Passengers Walt and Bernice Walter of Portland said Capt. Tim McCormick of Sea Coast Towing did a "Herculean" job of getting his barge next to the Empress so people could disembark.

McCormick invited the passengers into the tugboat and gave them stools to sit on, Walter said.

"I call that the American experience," Walter said. "You kind of roll with the punches and don't get excited."

It took about three hours to shuttle all the Empress passengers from the various vessels to the Columbia, an official said.

"The weather conditions were awesome, perfect," Taylor said. "Calm water, nice, flat. There was hardly a breath of wind. There was a little flood current coming that pushed us back into Chatham Strait, but there was never any hazard to the vessel as we were transferring passengers."

They were set ashore at Auke Bay at about 11:30 a.m.

An hour or two earlier, the cruise ship had come free and powered itself to Auke Bay. It was surrounded by a boom in case of fuel spill, officials said.

The passengers were bused to Centennial Hall in downtown Juneau, where a team of volunteers from the American Red Cross of Alaska helped get them medicine and food. The Baranof Hotel provided crab salad, lamb chops, eggs and bacon and biscuits and gravy.

Officials made sure all the passengers were accounted for, and Majestic America cruise company made travel plans for them. The company expected all passengers to be flown out of Juneau on Monday, spokeswoman Ann Marie Ricard said.

As passengers streamed out of Centennial Hall toward the buses that would take them to the airport, they waved at the helpers and cried out, "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!"

• Ken Lewis and Korry Keeker can be reached at ken.lewis@juneauempire.com and korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.



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