'Major' probe begins on ship grounding

Investigation looks into incident after rescue of 281 people

Posted: Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The 360-foot cruise ship that ran aground near Icy Strait on Monday was equipped with an electronic chart and a voyage data recorder that will reveal her location, speed, course, and conversations of the crew at the time of the accident, federal officials said Tuesday.

A team of seven investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the grounding of the Empress of the North, which required the rescue of 281 people, including 206 passengers and 75 crew members.

They interviewed crew members on Tuesday and toured the ship, which board member Kitty Higgins described as "state of the art."

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Drug and alcohol tests were conducted on the crew, but the results were not available yet, she said.

The crew conducted an alcohol test on themselves after the incident, said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Mark Guillory.

The NTSB team arrived Monday evening and were briefed by the captain Tuesday morning. Higgins said the investigation was "major," and their goal is to finish it within a year. It's normal for NTSB findings to take months.

Information about why the accident happened, how the ship came free, and where exactly it all took place will become clear over the course of the investigation, officials said.

The Juneau ship was on the second day of a seven-day cruise when it ran aground near the confluence of Icy Strait and Lynn Canal. It was on its way to Bartlett Cove, having left Skagway.

A group of nearby fishing and other vessels, Coast Guard cutters and the state ferry Columbia helped with the rescue at about 2 a.m. The low-sided riverboat-style ship had been listing eight degrees, officials said.

The Columbia brought passengers and crew members ashore at Auke Bay, where they were bused to Centennial Hall.

The cruise ship had refloated and arrived at Auke Bay just before the Columbia Monday morning.

Officials expected the Empress of the North to stay in Auke Bay for a few more days before being moved to a shipyard for final repairs.

The passengers received refunds, travel costs home from Juneau and a complimentary future cruise

• Ken Lewis can be reached at ken.lewis@juneauempire.com.

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