State fires two for grounding ferry

Inquiries show captain, chief mate responsible for accident that could cost the state $3 million

Posted: Tuesday, June 15, 2004

The Alaska Department of Transportation fired the captain and chief mate of the LeConte on Monday after determining they were at fault for grounding the state ferry on the Cozian Reef on May 10.

Capt. Harvey Williamson and Chief Mate William Petrich had been on unpaid leave since the grounding, department spokeswoman Nona Wilson said. After the department concluded an investigation she said, "it's not appropriate to keep these people on our staff anymore."

The state terminated their employment "due to the serious nature and cause of the accident," she said.

Ronald Leighton, the Alaska representative of the Masters, Mates and Pilots union, told The Associated Press he would not argue that some negligence was involved.

"Obviously, if the vessel ended up on the rocks, they were negligent in some form or fashion," Leighton said.

But he said that does not mean they should lose their jobs, adding that ferry workers involved in other accidents over the last several years have not been fired.

Leighton said the state failed to provide Williamson and Petrich with a hearing before disciplining them.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which independently found the officers negligent in their conduct, announced Monday that Williamson and Petrich had agreed to eight-month suspensions of their licenses to operate freight or passenger vessels for hire.

Lt. j.g. Dan Buchsbaum said the two were cooperative and accepted the sanctions. Their agreements made a hearing on their actions unnecessary, he said.

Buchsbaum said each also must complete a bridge resource management training course before his license can be reinstated. Thereafter, they will be on probation for one year, with any violations resulting in an additional six-month license suspension, in addition to any new penalties.

Although they no longer work for the Alaska Marine Highway System, the agreement calls for them to give a presentation to other ferry officers to explain what they did wrong, Buchsbaum said.

According to initial estimates, it could cost $3 million to repair the LeConte. The reef in Peril Strait, north of Sitka, ripped gashes on both sides of bow while the LeConte was on a scheduled run from Angoon to Sitka.

All 86 passengers were evacuated by lifeboats. Vehicles were removed four days later, before salvagers floated the vessel off the reef so it could be towed to Ketchikan for repairs.

Until the LeConte could be secured to be transported to Ketchikan, the $35 million vessel remained in grave danger, Wilson said.

The Coast Guard investigation ruled out drugs and alcohol as factors in the grounding. Final findings were similar to the preliminary report released eight days after the May 10 incident.

Williamson was on the bridge, and Petrich was responsible for directing the ferry's course and speed, the investigation found. It determined a decision was made to alter course for a route inside Otstoia Island, which was not planned before the voyage.

After correctly allowing a barge to pass, Petrich did not check the ship's position to determine the proper course, the state and Coast Guard investigations determined. The LeConte sailed on the wrong side of a fixed navigational aid - a nautical warning sign - and onto Cozian Reef at a cruising speed of about 14 to 15 knots.

The reports note that weather was clear and seas were calm.

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