Agency: Ship's safety equipment needs inspection

Board's message issued days before Empress of the North set to depart

Posted: Friday, July 06, 2007

ANCHORAGE - A high-end cruise ship that ran aground this spring in the fjords of Southeast Alaska has potentially faulty lifesaving equipment on board that should be inspected immediately, the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday.

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The board urged the Coast Guard to recheck life rafts and inflatable slides on the Empress of the North two days before the ship is slated to depart the Juneau dock at near full capacity. The voyage will be the vessel's first since hitting an underwater rock on May 14.

A spokeswoman for the ship's Seattle-based owner, Majestic America Line, said the Coast Guard inspection will take place before the Empress leaves Alaska's capital for a week-long round-trip cruise through the Inside Passage.

"The company is committed to guest safety and we're taking extra measures with the Coast Guard to make sure everything is functioning," company spokeswoman Ann Marie Ricard said.

The Coast Guard plans to conduct the recommended inspections on Friday, said Lt. Brierley Ostrander, a Juneau-based spokeswoman.

The NTSB discovered deficiencies in safety equipment during interviews with the crew as part of an investigation into the ship's grounding.

As the ship's 206 passengers were evacuating, crew members found that half of the 22 life rafts didn't deploy properly.

The pumps that launch the life rafts had not been lubricated as directed by the Swedish manufacturer, CM Hammar AB, according to the NTSB letter. Crew members used their own knives to cut the lines attaching the rafts to the 360-foot ship, the safety board said in a letter to the Coast Guard.

In addition, the ship's two evacuation slides inflated upside down and appeared to have been repacked incorrectly during an inspection by a Coast Guard-certified vessel safety company in February, the board said.

The board recommended that the Coast Guard examine all evacuation slides last serviced by the company, Marine Safety Services in Seattle. The company inspects and supplies emergency equipment to fishing vessels, tug companies and the Washington state ferry system, said owner Dale Simmons.

Shawn Simmons, the company's sales and technician representative, insisted the company had packed the slides correctly and said crew members probably misfired them.

"It's coming down to a he-said, she-said," Simmons said.

The difficulties in launching the equipment did not imperil passengers and the evacuation went smoothly because the Empress grounded in calm waters with several other vessels nearby to help, said NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz.

However, "if there had been strong wind or waves," the board said, "that operation could not have been done either quickly or safely."

The NTSB letter to the Coast Guard was tagged "urgent," a term that the agency doesn't take lightly, said NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway.

"They're sent out when we believe a safety issue needs to be addressed immediately because of the potential impact on the transportation public," Holloway said.

The Coast Guard and the NTSB have been pursuing parallel investigations since the riverboat-style cruise ship ran aground in Icy Strait about 20 miles southwest of Juneau. The ship was heading out of Skagway toward Glacier Bay.

The impact ripped several holes in the ship's hull and prompted the evacuation of all passengers and a portion of the 75-member crew.

Rooms on the richly furnished Empress range from $3,600 to $6,650 for a one-week cruise, according to the Majestic America Web site. An inventory of the ship's decor includes Faberge eggs, valuable paintings of the American West and American Indian totems and masks.

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