Crew camps out on ferry as it's towed

Posted: Thursday, June 15, 2000

Manned by a skeleton crew, equipped with portable toilets and emergency power, the crippled ferry Columbia is being towed by tugboat to Ketchikan today.

The ship's emergency generator is providing power and lights to the bridge and engine room, said Capt. George Capacci, Alaska Marine Highway System general manager. Radars, radios, navigational lights and some ventilation systems are running.

``The captain has got the rudders working to assist the tugs,'' Capacci said. ``The ship tows pretty easily. It's not like towing a barge.''

He said the ship's controllable pitch propellers are also operational and could be called upon if needed.

``The diesel engines work. They're made to work without electrical power,'' he said. ``We could start them, but we'd rather not use them.''

The Juneau-based tug Chahunta, owned by Amak Towing of Ketchikan, is expected to pull the Columbia into Ketchikan about 11 tonight. Capacci said the tug boat captain is responsible for the safety of the ship during the 318-mile, 32-hour trip.

``The captains will be talking. We picked the safest passage down,'' Capacci said.

The Columbia will bypass the Wrangell Narrows and the Petersburg area in favor of the open reaches of Stephens Passage, Frederick Sound, and Sumner and Clarence straits. A second tug will join them when the ship reaches the Tongass Narrows to help maneuver through the approach to Ketchikan.

The galley equipment isn't on, and there's no running water. The 20 crew members on board are eating out of ice chests and heating water with a coffee urn and a couple of microwave ovens, Capacci said. Portable toilets were rolled onto the car deck in Juneau for the trip.

An electrical switchboard fire in the engine control room June 6 shut the ship down in Chatham Strait while en route from Juneau to Sitka. There were no injuries, and all 434 passengers were evacuated.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the Marine Highway System are investigating the fire's cause.

``We don't have a clear cause right now,'' Capacci said.

The state is still working on the specifications for repairs, and no contracts for work have been awarded.

``We don't want to rebuild it until we figure out what happened,'' Capacci said.

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