Flat calm seas assisted in the evacuation of 434 passengers from the ferry Columbia just after noon Tuesday when an electrical fire crippled the ship in Chatham Strait near Tenakee Inlet.
The 418-foot Columbia left Juneau about 9 a.m. Tuesday on a regularly scheduled eight-hour run to Sitka. Fire broke out in the main switchboard, depriving the vessel of all but emergency circuits. The fire was quickly extinguished, but flared up again 40 minutes later when fresh oxygen got into the area, said Capt. Norm Edwards, Alaska Marine Highway operations manager.
Jeanette Daly, 52, of Blue River, Wis., and her husband Ron, 55, had been napping in their stateroom. Jeanette suddenly woke, only to hear the engine stop.
``I thought maybe they saw some whales. I thought it was strange to stop for that -- but it's Alaska; who knows!'' she said.
This morning, the Dalys sat in the Auke Bay ferry terminal waiting for the Columbia to be towed in. Then they would reclaim their station wagon, board the Kennicott, and head for Skagway.
``We need to be back in Wisconsin for our jobs on Monday,'' said Ron, a self-employed electrician whose wife works at Lands End.
Also waiting patiently in the terminal were the Miyasato family. Chester and Kate Miyasato were accompanying their son Nickolas and three grandchildren to their home in Sitka for three weeks vacation.
The senior Miyasatos had been visiting Juneau for Celebration 2000. Headed home on the Columbia, Kate, extremely sensitive to odors, first realized there was something wrong when acrid smoke made her ill. ``I felt funny. I went to walk around and was up on the bow when the engine stopped,'' she said.
When she realized the extent of the situation, ``I panicked because of my grandkids,'' she added.
But all was well, she said, as one grandchild manipulated a foot-high Spiderman figure and another lounged on the carpet. ``They were really nice to us. They fed us and gave us a room last night,'' she said.
Other passengers were dissatisfied. Greg Gordon, 30, called the trip ``a nightmare'' and ``totally disorganized.''
``They told you `five minutes' and it was two hours. They made lists of names three or four times for no reason. We didn't get into a room on the Malaspina (which housed some Columbia passengers) until midnight. And then there was no food or water. All the (ferry employees) had attitude; they treated us like crap,'' he said.
Gordon, a Juneau graphic artist, was particularly concerned about his four cats. He was able to rescue only one, and not until an hour and a half after the fire.
``Everybody was just miserable and upset,'' he said.
James Veo, 40, of Juneau, said ferry employees crumpled under pressure.
``They kept saying, `At least no one died.' That was their excuse for every (inconvenience). What kind of damage control is `no one died?''' Veo said.
When the fire broke out, the Columbia was about 30 miles from Juneau. The ferry Taku responded and took all 434 passengers aboard. The 63-member crew stayed with the distressed ship.
``It's just fortunate we were in the vicinity,'' said Tom Moore, first mate on the Taku. Coast Guard vessels Anacapa and Liberty were nearby, and two logging tugs, Banner and Jahinta, also came to the rescue, Moore added.
Tourists Kelly Phillips, 32, and Svia Rothstein, 27, of Steamboat Springs, Colo., observed the action as passengers on the Taku. ``We could see all the people on deck with their life vests. Then we pulled up next to them, and an empty ship turned into a full ship,'' Phillips said.
``It was very orderly -- from the fire to the helicopter evacuation,'' said Fred Montez, captain of the ferry LeConte. Montez was a passenger on the Columbia taking his daughters on vacation to Bellingham.
``They put a big gangway across (the gap between the freight doors of the two ferries), about 5 feet wide. They led a few people over with crew members on each side. Both captains did a great job holding their ships in place -- especially with the lack of power on the Columbia,'' he said.
Tuesday night, marine highway employees scrambled to find accommodations. The Taku's 44 staterooms could hold two to four passengers each, Moore said. Malaspina staterooms were also pressed into service.
This morning, the U.S. Coast Guard was looking at the big picture.
``The fire is out. The passengers are safe. There is no pollution. So we have shifted our focus to the investigation and to look for lessons learned to prevent future problems,'' said Port Capt. Rob Lorigan of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Juneau.
Three passengers needed medical assistance during the emergency. A man, 80, suffered heart attack symptoms and was medevaced by helicopter to Bartlett Regional Hospital. He was discharged pain-free about 7 p.m. Tuesday, the hospital said.
A diabetic woman, 45, was transported to the emergency room from the Taku when it arrived at Auke Bay. Another woman, 73, had run out of blood pressure medication. Both were treated and released.
Relatives and sightseers stood in Tuesday's drizzle at the ferry dock, waiting for friends or relatives.
``It's so sad,'' said Fran Cropley of Juneau, checking on the welfare of cousin Bob Carroll and his wife Darlene. ``So many people at Celebration bought so much groceries to take home.''
Alberta Jones of Juneau waited for her mother, Corinne Brown, and her niece, Laurel Enloe. When they trudged off the Taku about 9 p.m., Alberta embraced them, exclaiming, ``We're going home to watch `Titanic!'''