Federal probe blames state for Columbia fire

Posted: Wednesday, October 03, 2001

A fire on board the state ferry Columbia likely was sparked by a faulty connection or a foreign object in the ship's main switchboard, according to federal investigators.

And the state probably caused the blaze by ineffectively maintaining and inspecting the electrical switchboards, the National Transportation Safety Board has concluded.

However, the director of the state ferry system is disputing some findings by the NTSB, which released a summary of its report.

"We welcome the scrutiny," said Capt. George Capacci, general manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System. But "they missed some information in their investigation."

The ship's main switchboard caught fire in June 2000 while the Columbia was traveling from Juneau to Sitka. The crew safely evacuated the people on board, but the blaze caused about $1.5 million in damages and sidelined the ship for much of this year's tourist season as well, costing the ferry system roughly $2.5 million in revenue, Capacci said.

The NTSB laid out several scenarios of what might have sparked the electrical fire, in a letter last week to Capacci. One possible culprit was a faulty connection in the switchboard, perhaps caused by mechanical vibrations or by work done on the panel by a shipyard prior to the fire, the letter said.

"The work required that shipyard workers open the switchboard to add electrical connections and, in the process, disturb the connections that were already in place," the NTSB said.

Another scenario is shipyard employees might have inadvertently left a metal tool or other conductive object inside the switchboard during the last overhaul, triggering a short circuit.

"Such a mistake would not have been detected because the (state) did not inspect the electricians' work," the NTSB said.

The NTSB concluded the state should have supervised and inspected the shipyard work and recommended that the ferry system revise procedures for accepting work done by outside contractors to verify the job is done properly.

Capacci challenged the finding, saying a state manager did inspect the work but was not interviewed by the NTSB. However, Capacci was not certain the state manager thoroughly inspected the switchboard for faulty connections.

Investigators also recommended that the state mandate an annual physical examination of the switchboard plus a yearly infrared thermographic inspection, a technique in which inspectors use a special camera to search for hot spots in the switchboard.

The NTSB said a thermographic inspection is an important tool and might have prevented the fire, but noted the Columbia's switchboard had not been inspected thermographically in five years. Capacci disputed that, saying the last thermographic inspection was done in September 1999, prior to the shipyard overhaul but less than one year before the fire.

"I don't know what they're telling us," Capacci said. "We gave them a copy of our survey results that it was done in 1999."

The NTSB also faulted the ferry system for not giving the ship's crew adequate training to fight a fire in the engine control room, the origin of the blaze. The chief engineer sent two crew members into the control room without protective clothing, needlessly exposing them to serious injury and demonstrating poor judgment by the chief engineer, said the NTSB, which called some crew actions "somewhat haphazard and improvised."

The first assistant engineer also opened two circuit breakers in the smoke-filled room by hitting them with a flashlight - an imprudent action considering the electrical arcing activity, the fire in the switchboard and the poor visibility, the board found.

"Only happenstance prevented his being seriously injured," said the NTSB, noting the employee's actions indicated a lack of proper training in fighting a switchboard fire.

Although the Columbia had a fire-response plan, it was inadequate and failed to thoroughly explain the duties of people in charge of battling the blaze, said the NTSB, which recommended that the state develop for all ferries comprehensive plans that include procedures for fighting fires in the engine room.

The agency also recommended that the state install a computer-based maintenance planning system and put a telephone in the engine room to ensure emergency communication with the bridge. The fire blocked access to the phone in the engine control room, which is near the engine room, and the crew had to alert the bridge from a phone on the car deck. Capacci said the state has since installed a phone in the engine room and is developing a computer-based maintenance planning system.

Capacci said he still is reviewing the recommendations and intends to write a detailed response. He also praised the Columbia's crew for safely evacuating passengers to the ferry Taku, which pulled alongside the stricken ship.

"We can't lose sight of the fact that our people did a wonderful job in making sure all the passengers were safe."

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