Salvage ship arrives at LeConte grounding

Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2004

Salvage workers removed all 15 vehicles on board the grounded state ferry LeConte on Friday, and a salvage ship arrived at the scene Saturday morning.

Offloading began shortly after 2 p.m. Friday and vehicles were moved four at a time to a barge, said Coast Guard spokesman Roger Wetherell in Juneau. They were taken to Sitka, about 30 miles away, by 1 p.m. Saturday.

A Seattle salvage vessel, the American Salvor, arrived on the scene at 10 a.m. Saturday.

The 235-foot LeConte, en route from Angoon to Sitka in Southeast Alaska, struck a well-known and marked hazard, the Cozian Reef, at about 9:55 a.m. Monday and ran aground.

The vessel took on water, forcing the evacuation of 86 passengers and 23 crew members. Three people were taken to Sitka for medical treatment.

Divers found two gashes about eight feet apart on the port and starboard sides of the V-shape keel. Both gashes are 30-40 feet long. The starboard side is up to 2 feet wide and the port side gash is 4-12 inches wide.

Breached compartments on the $30-35 million vessel included the bow thruster room and the sewage room.

No cause has been announced for the grounding, which occurred in calm, favorable conditions. But a press conference was scheduled for this evening, the Coast Guard said.

Salvagers say the ship will sink if it's moved off the reef before temporary repairs are made. Much of the work since the accident has been to stabilize and anchor the vessel.

The Coast Guard has approved a preliminary plan for salvaging the ferry. The plan will be made final after the arrival of the 213-foot American Salvor, a vessel equipped for marine salvage. On Saturday afternoon, Coast Guard officials had no further details of the plan.

The vessel contains equipment for pumping, pressurizing a compartment, patching and diving.

Wetherell said the preliminary salvage plan is comprehensive but factors such as a change in weather would mean changes.

"Hull patching might not be feasible for safe practice if we're dealing with 8-foot seas," he said.

"If you have weather that's not conducive to refloating the vessel, then the preliminary salvage plan may have to be altered."

Salvagers are anxious to refloat the vessel but are unwilling to sacrifice safety.

"That's the key thing we focus in on more than anything, is safety," he said.

He would not offer a timetable for refloating the LeConte out of concern that conditions could change.

About 16,600 gallons of fuel were removed from the LeConte. About 2,500 gallons remain on board to run the ship's generators, said Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Therasa Nettesheim.

The forecast through Wednesday calls for highs in the 60s, lows mostly in the 40s, winds of no more than 10-15 mph and no rain, Wetherell said.

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