Ferry fire more serious than first reported

Posted: Friday, June 06, 2008

A generator fire on the state ferry Columbia on May 25 may have been more serious than first reported, with news that the ship lost power at sea.

The engines were restarted and the ferry returned under its own power to Ketchikan, where the Alaska Marine Highway has a repair station, a ferry spokesman said.

The Coast Guard will investigate the incident, as it does with any unintentional loss of power at sea, Lt. j.g. Brierley Ostrander said in Juneau.

"The reason we do the investigation is to ensure we know what caused it and try to prevent it from happening again," Ostrander said.

Coast Guard Sector Juneau also will investigate the generator fire, she said.

The ferry system had earlier reported the fire but said the ship had not lost propulsion. Passengers aboard the Columbia reported that the 418-foot vessel, the largest in the fleet, had been adrift in Clarence Strait.

Ferry bridge logs show headway was restored within a maximum of six minutes, said Roger Wetherell, spokesman for the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, which operates the ferry system.

Copies of the logs, obtained under the Alaska Public Records Law, report that at 12:55 p.m. on May 25 the "ship was drifting after loss of propulsion," but that emergency lights were on, the emergency generator was up and running, and the ship was in "safe water."

The Columbia was carrying about 285 passengers and 113 vehicles at the time.

Wetherell declined to comment on the seriousness of the incident, but Juneau Assembly member Bob Doll, who once ran the ferry system and is a retired U.S. Navy captain, said any unintentional loss of power at sea is troubling, though this one had no serious consequences.

"If she is in a narrow channel, it's a lot different than open water," he said. "In this case it was not serious."

Doll said the Coast Guard review will likely look at human error or the failure of some interlock or system to determine why the engines shut down.

He said he would not expect a loss of power to cause the engines to shut down as the engines don't need electricity to operate.

"I can't imagine a sequence of events that would produce that outcome," he said.

Had Columbia been in Peril Strait or in the process of docking when it lost power, the consequences could have been more serious, he said.

Ostrander said she did not know how long the investigation would take.

The total cost of repairs, not counting using the idle ferry Kennicott as a replacement, will likely run $250,000, Wetherell said.

Also Thursday, the ferry system announced that the ferry Aurora would be docked for a week in Cordova because of engine problems. It will be replaced by the Chenega, Wetherell said.

The engine manufacturer has accepted responsibility for "fabrication defects" and will pay all replacement costs, Wetherell said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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