2000 June 6th. Alaska, Chatham Strait, about 30 miles
southwest of Juneau: a fire broke out in the main switchboard
in the engine control room of the Alaska Marine Highway
System (AMHS) ferry Columbia with 434 passengers, 1 stowaway,
and 63 crewmembers on board 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 assisted by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter.
The fire was extinguished with no resulting injuries or
deaths and the damage was estimated at about US $2 million.
Three passengers were evacuated by Coast Guard helicopter
because of medical conditions and the remaining passengers
were transferred to another AMHS ferry and transported to
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
• Adequacy of inspection and maintenance procedures
for electrical systems;
• Adequacy of management safety oversight of maintenance
• Adequacy of firefighting procedures.
The state plans to ask for bids on an estimated $1.5 million
worth of repairs to the fire-damaged ferry Columbia.
With a scheduled remodeling project coming up this winter
as well, the ship won't be back in service until next summer,
said Capt. Norm Edwards, operations manager of the Alaska
Marine Highway System. The vessel was damaged by an electrical
fire in June.
The Columbia's electrical board must be redesigned as a
result of the June 6 switchboard fire in Chatham Strait,
southwest of Juneau. About 500 passengers and crew members
were evacuated safely, and the 418-foot ship was towed to
Auke Bay and then to Ketchikan.
Meanwhile, the Matanuska was moved over to the Bellingham,
Wash.-to-Skagway run, the ferry system's most lucrative
Initially, there was hope of getting the Columbia back
in operation before the end of the summer season, but further
investigation revealed more extensive damage from the electrical
fire than was first thought, Edwards said.
The state already had planned the winter renovation project,
estimated at $7 million. That will be a reconfiguration
of two cabin decks to create 30 additional cabins, Edwards
The Columbia was built in 1974 at a cost of $22 million