Ferry floats free at last

Officials say human error probably caused the grounding of the LeConte

Posted: Tuesday, May 18, 2004

As the crippled state ferry LeConte began making its way to Ketchikan Monday, Alaska Marine Highway officials said evidence indicates human error stuck it on Cozian Reef a week earlier.

"It ran headlong into a reef," and the point was well marked on the charts, said Nona Wilson, spokeswoman for the marine highway, on Monday.

The LeConte ran aground on the morning of May 10 in Peril Strait, about 30 miles north of Sitka, its next scheduled stop. It was on its way from Angoon, which has since been without marine highway service.

The state Department of Transportation has looked into the matter and determined there were no engine or mechanical problems. The factors point to navigational error, Wilson said.

Officials from the Coast Guard and marine highway announced last week that tests showed the crew members on the bridge at the time of the accident were not under the influence of alcohol.

Wilson said she could not release any specifics about what might have led to the error. But the marine highway wants to make sure that steps are taken so the same thing doesn't happen again.

The state's investigation is continuing and is independent of the one being conducted by the Coast Guard, she added.

She also said it is uncertain when the LeConte will return to waters near Juneau.

"The LeConte is going to be out of commission for quite some time," she said.

Before noon Monday, the vessel floated off the reef on its own power into water more than 150 feet deep, Wilson said. The plan originally called for patches to be made in a nearby cove, but divers determined that the temporary repairs made on the reef would get the ferry to Ketchikan, she added.

The LeConte, being pulled by a tug boat, was expected to arrive in Ketchikan Thursday, Wilson said. It is being escorted by the American Salvagor and the Coast Guard cutter Liberty.

Traveling at up to 4 or 5 knots, the LeConte will need three days to complete the 263-mile trip, she said. It won't be able to take the most direct route. It will have to avoid Wrangell Narrows for a more open route.

Wilson said 20 people are on the LeConte, mostly from private salvage crews, making sure the tow lines are in good shape, that the vessel is properly steered and that the air pumps continue to provide the bubbles that keep it afloat.

The ferry's hull suffered gashes in both sides of the bow. Wilson said that some of the patches were made with epoxy and synthetic rubber before the ferry came off the reef.

In places that couldn't be patched, air is being pumped to create buoyant bubbles, she explained. The salvagers have to keep the air cushions underneath the ferry, and if they slip out, they have to pump more air to create new ones.

In addition to the air bubbles underneath the front of the boat, ballast has the back half of the boat sitting deeper in the water so that the bow is higher, Wilson said.

The people working in Juneau to coordinate salvage efforts continue to be in contact with the ferry, at a minimum of every two hours around the clock, she said.

The LeConte is headed for dry dock in Ketchikan, where a repair plan will be worked out. Wilson said Marine Highway officials hope the repairs can be completed there. "You really won't know everything until you pull it out of the water," Wilson said.

The LeConte was built in 1974, according to marine highway records. "It's still worth $35 million," Wilson said. "A new ship would cost about double that. She's definitely worth it, although we don't know how much it will cost."

Meanwhile, plans are still being worked out to provide service to three ports that only the LeConte, among ferries running in Southeast, could serve. Angoon, Tenakee Springs and Pelican can't take bigger boats.

The new fast ferry Fairweather, at 230 feet long, is five feet shorter than the LeConte, Wilson said. But its Coast Guard certification has been held up.

Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Dan Buchsbaum said the certification holdup is not because of concerns about the Fairweather.

"Licenses have not been issued to the mariners," he said.

He thinks everything is on track to have them licensed by June 1, when the Fairweather is scheduled to start its runs.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

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