The ferry Columbia could be out of commission for weeks.
As engineers from the Alaska Marine Highway System and other investigators pore over the charred entrails of the Columbia's control room, the investigatory process stretches further and further into the indefinite future.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigation could take as many as five to seven days, said investigator-in-charge Jim Scheffer, who is heading a seven-person team from Washington, D.C., that arrived Thursday.
``We have an interest in passenger vessel safety,'' said Scheffer, a marine expert, ``and each fire is probably unique in itself. That's why we are here to dig into it and get the facts.''
The team includes a fire science expert. It will compose a draft report, which it will then turn over to its main office for analysis.
The 418-foot Columbia was en route from Juneau to Sitka at noon Tuesday when fire broke out. The blaze severed connections to engines, stopping the vessel dead in the water at the mouth of Chatham Strait.
All 434 passengers were speedily evacuated to the ferry Taku, which happened to be nearby. The 352-foot Taku was diverted from its Sitka-to-Hoonah run to assist.
``The Columbia is our long-haul vessel, and we don't have any others. So it's going to be touch-and-go'' filling in, said Capt. George Capacci, general manager of the ferry system.
The ferry system has been scrambling to find ways to take up the slack in its schedules while the Columbia is out of service.
``We can't charter from British Columbia because that would be against the Jones Act. Ships must be built in the U.S.,'' Capacci said.
Vessels might be leased from Goldbelt to fill in the gaps, such as transportation needed for the Kluane-Chilkat International Bicycle Relay Race on June 17.
``Goldbelt vessels are passenger only; they don't take vehicles,'' Capacci noted, ``but we have had discussions with them. Nothing is firm yet.''
An unexpected difficulty with another ferry, the LeConte, has thrown a second monkey wrench into the marine highway's summer schedule
The LeConte just finished six months overhaul in Bellingham, Wash., getting a new engine. It was supposed to be back on duty June 2, and finally left Bellingham on Thursday.
But the LeConte experienced an electrical short near Port Hardy at the north end of Victoria Island, Capacci said. ``The captain did not have confidence in the electrical system, and shorts were causing steering problems.''
The ship anchored offshore. A technician was flown out and found the short in the bridge console. Transformers were replaced, and the ship resumed its trip north Thursday evening. It should arrive in Ketchikan about 7:30 p.m. today. As a result of this delay, the LeConte's schedule must be ``rewritten for the 15th time,'' Capacci said.
The marine highway would like to inject the LeConte and the Aurora into the system while the Columbia languishes. The LeConte will make connections in the southern Panhandle for about a week, while Aurora circulates in the northern Panhandle. Then the LeConte and Aurora will pick up their regular schedules about June 12 or 13, Capacci said.
It has not been decided which shipyard the Columbia will head to for repairs.