About 1207, Alaskan daylight time, June 6, 2000, a fire broke out in the main switchboard in the engine control room of the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) ferry Columbia. The ferry, with 434 passengers, 1 stowaway, and 63 crewmembers on board, was underway in Chatham Strait, about 30 nautical miles southwest of Juneau, Alaska, on a regularly scheduled voyage from Juneau to Sitka, Alaska. As a result of the fire, the vessel lost main propulsion and electrical power and began to drift. The crewmembers on board the Columbia responded to the fire first. Soon thereafter, the U.S. Coast Guard (Coast Guard) cutter Anacapa, on patrol nearby, sent a firefighting team to the Columbia. About 1425, the fire was extinguished with no resulting injuries or deaths. However, the Columbia remained adrift.
Three passengers were evacuated by Coast Guard helicopter because of medical conditions that preexisted the fire. The remaining passengers were safely transferred to another AMHS ferry, the Taku, which had rendezvoused with the drifting Columbia. About 2030, the Taku arrived at Auke Bay Ferry Terminal in Juneau, where the passengers disembarked. The Columbia was towed to the same terminal, arriving at 0845, on June 7. According to the AMHS, the cost of repairs to the ship was about $2 million.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the fire on the Columbia was the absence of an effective maintenance and inspection program for the electrical switchboards, resulting in a switchboard fire by arcing, most likely due to a faulty connection or a conductive object.
The major safety issues discussed in the report are as follows:
- Adequacy of inspection and maintenance procedures for electricalsystems;
- Adequacy of management safety oversight of maintenance procedures;and
- Adequacy of firefighting procedures.
As a result of this investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board makes safety recommendations to the AMHS, the operator of the Columbia.
As a result of its investigation of this accident, the National Transportation Safety Board makes the following recommendations:
To the Alaska Marine Highway System:
Develop an annual switchboard inspection program that includes a thorough infrared thermographic inspection and physical examination of components. (M-01-19)
Include an annual switchboard inspection program in your computer-based maintenance planning system. (M-01-20)
Revise your procedures for accepting completed shipboard maintenance and repair work performed by outside contractors to verify that work has been done properly. (M-01-21)
Develop comprehensive prefire plans for the vessels in your fleet that include procedures for fighting an engineroom fire and require the ships' crews to be thoroughly drilled in using the plans. (M-01-22)
Install a means of alerting the bridge of an emergency from the Columbia's engineroom in case the telephone in the control room is inaccessible. (M-01-23)