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Columbia damage has ripple effect on ferry schedule

Posted: Wednesday, June 07, 2000

The ``minor'' electrical fire on the ferry Columbia will have major impacts throughout the Alaska Marine Highway.

The entire ferry schedule will change until the Columbia is fixed, as other ships are pulled from their normal routes to fill in, said Alaska Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Kurt Parkan.

``Every vessel, practically, is affected as result of this, as you can imagine,'' Parkan said. ``It's a major event in terms of scheduling.''

For at least a few days, daily service won't be available between Juneau, Haines and Skagway, as the Malaspina completes part of the Columbia's route, Parkan said.

The Columbia was on its way to Sitka on Tuesday when the fire broke out in the electrical system. It was supposed to stop in Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan today, then continue south to Bellingham, where it picks up a new load of passengers Friday.

The Taku, which was already scheduled to follow the Columbia's path to Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan, will also be carrying the Columbia's passengers.

The Matanuska will sail down to Bellingham to pick up passengers waiting there this weekend.

About 100 Alaska Natives from Sitka were returning from Celebration on the Columbia, including most of the dancers who perform at the Sheet'ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi community house.

``We do have a skeleton crew today, but we have three dance shows,'' said Donna Dimond, who scheduled the dance performances. ``We're just going to have some really tired dancers, that's for sure.''

The temporary loss of the Malaspina's day service will have a bigger impact in Skagway than a break in the Columbia's weekly service, said Alane Silva, manager of Garden City RV. RVers often take the day boat between Skagway and Haines, then continue driving from there.

``I don't think it affects the numbers a whole lot. It would just be a few rigs,'' Silva said. ``It's just a matter of the ones that are here that wanted to go across.''

In Wrangell, where there are fewer tourists, the loss of the Columbia would be more critical.

``We usually get a pretty good bunch of RVers and people that come off there and spend a few days,'' said Mark Seimears, manager of Wrangell Oil in Wrangell. ``I think it's going to hurt the town somewhat.''

The Columbia usually stays in Wrangell several hours Wednesdays and Sundays, giving passengers a chance to get off and shop. Some Wrangell businesses open on Sunday just for the ferry stop, Seimears said.

``We're hurting for ferry service anyway down here,'' Seimears said.

Parkan did not know yet how long it will take to get the Columbia back in service. The Coast Guard and marine highway engineers were able to go on board about 10 a.m. today to look at the damage.

Though the fire was small ``it was a very critical area of essentially the nerve center, the core,'' Parkan said. ``It's going to take a significant amount of work to get it back in shape.''

The Columbia is the largest, fastest and most lucrative ship in the ferry system, carrying full loads of tourists from Bellingham to Skagway and back each week.

``We're going to try to make up as best we can, but when you take a vessel off line you lose the service and the revenue and that's going to hurt us,'' Parkan said. ``It's going to disrupt service...everything shifts a little bit.''

A revised schedule will be released this afternoon, Parkan said. It will be posted on juneauempire.com as soon as it is available.



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