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Report: Probe points to ferry's top officers

Posted: Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The LeConte's chief mate didn't look to see where he was taking the ferry when he ran it on the wrong side of a navigational marker and onto Cozian Reef last week, the Coast Guard has determined.

Lt. j.g. Dan Buchsbaum said Tuesday the preliminary findings came from more than eight days of intensive investigation into the May 10 grounding of the state ferry in Peril Strait, about 30 miles north of Sitka.

Monday, Alaska Marine Highway System officials announced navigational error was to blame. Tuesday's Coast Guard announcement more specifically points to the ferry's commanding officer, Master Harvey Williamson, and Chief Mate William Petrich, who was at the helm of the LeConte under Williamson's supervision.

Alaska Department of Transportation spokeswoman Nona Wilson said that while she is looking forward to the final report, she finds the behavior described in the preliminary report "100 percent unacceptable. The marine highway system knows that the passengers put trust in our staff and our crew members."

She said the LeConte's top two officers have not been back to sea since the grounding.

The Empire could reach neither officer for comment Tuesday.

Monday the LeConte was floated off the reef and was taken into tow for Ketchikan for repairs. A week earlier, on its way from Angoon to Sitka, it ran into Cozian Reef at 14 to 15 knots, Buchsbaum said, referring to the Coast Guard report.

The investigation found that a decision was made to alter course for a route inside Otstoia Island, a decision which was not planned before the voyage. After correctly allowing a tug and barge to pass, Petrich "turned the ship without first checking the ship's position to determine the proper course," the report states.

It states that Williamson and Petrich did not see a fixed navigational aid marking the proper route past Cozian Reef and passed on the wrong side.

Voyage conditions were good, Buchsbaum added. Weather was clear. Seas were calm. No mechanical problems contributed to the grounding, he said, repeating a point made in the marine highway statement from Monday.

Thursday, officials from the Coast Guard and marine highway ruled out alcohol as a factor. Results from drug tests given to people working on the bridge won't be available for at least another week, Buchsbaum said.

Investigators would have looked at their work schedules to see what sort of hours they were putting in, and the report gave no indication of any such problems from overwork, he added.

Wilson said it angers her that carelessness could be to blame for grounding a $35 million ship.

The rocks of the Cozian Reef tore gashes into both sides of the LeConte's bow.

In addition to the tugboat pulling it, it is being accompanied to Ketchikan by the salvage ship, American Salvagor and the Coast Guard cutter Liberty. Buchsbaum said Tuesday that the weather continued to be favorable and was expected to remain so through the voyage. Traveling at about 5 knots, the ships are expected to arrive Thursday in Ketchikan.

When the investigation unfolds, remedies will be put in place for the problems that are identified, Wilson said. "The marine highway is going to take care of the problem."

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



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