No one injured in ferry blaze

Fire started in second generator on Columbia

Posted: Thursday, May 29, 2003

More than 165 passengers and crew of the state ferry Columbia awoke to news of a fire on board early Wednesday, said U.S. Coast Guard officials.

No one was injured in the blaze that started in the electrical center of the ship's second generator around 1:45 a.m., Coast Guard Petty Officer Sara Raymer said Wednesday. The ship has four generators, including an emergency generator, but usually operates on one or two, she said.

Capt. George Capacci, general manager for the Alaska Marine Highway System, said the Columbia was on its way out of Petersburg headed for Wrangell with about 170 passengers at around 1:20 a.m.

About 20 minutes out of port, around the Wrangell Narrows, the ship lost power, Capacci said. Less than a minute later, an emergency generator kicked in and word spread to the crew there was a fire in the engine room. Engineers put the fire out with a hand-held extinguisher.

At the same time, the captain started the ship's auxiliary motor and steered the ship into Scowl Bay where he dropped anchor. The ship was anchored for about an hour while the ship's crew investigated the fire and made sure it didn't flare up. The damage was confined to the generator.

By 2:40 a.m., the ship was on its way to Wrangell, powered by two generators. The Columbia docked around noon Wednesday in Ketchikan, Capacci said.

Coast Guard investigators determined the fire started in the electrical compartment of the V12, 845-kilowatt generator, Raymer said. She said the ship missed its scheduled 4 p.m. departure time Wednesday from Ketchikan because the Coast Guard was waiting for approval of the Marine Highway System's plan to fix the generator. No one could confirm whether the ship had left Ketchikan as of 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

This is the first fire on the Columbia since a major overhaul was done to its electrical system three years ago. In June 2000, an electrical fire in the switchboard of the vessel crippled the ship, which had to be towed to moorage in Auke Bay. Marine Highway Officials took the ship off of the ferry schedule until all of the switchboard wiring was pulled out and replaced.

Capacci said he didn't expect the Columbia to be out of commission this time. Its next stop is Bellingham, Wash., a 36-hour, 595-mile trip from Ketchikan. The ferry isn't scheduled to leave Bellingham until 6 p.m. Saturday.

Melanie Plenda can be reached

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