The National Transportation Safety Board today determined that the probable cause of a fire on board a passenger ferry in Alaska "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 fire broke out in the main switchboard of the engine control room of the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) ferry Columbia on June 6, 2000. The Columbia, with 498 people on board, was underway in the Chatham Strait, about 30 nautical miles southwest of Juneau, on a regularly scheduled voyage to Sitka, Alaska. As a result of the fire, the ferry lost main propulsion and electrical power and began to drift. The fire was extinguished and the passengers were transferred to another vessel with no resulting casualties. The Columbia was then towed to port. The cost of repairs to the vessel was approximately $2 million.
At a public meeting, held in Washington, DC, on September 18, the Safety Board concluded that the fire might have been avoided if the main switchboard had been subjected to thorough and timely inspections as part of an effective preventive maintenance program, which likely would have identified and corrected faulty connections and removed any foreign conductive objects.
The Safety Board also found that the ability of the Columbia's crew to respond to the fire was "less than adequate" because the AMHS had not developed a comprehensive prefire plan that included procedures for fighting engineroom fires and required that crew members train and drill for such emergencies.
As a result of its investigation, the NTSB made the following recommendations to the AMHS:
- Develop an annual switchboard inspection program that includes a thorough infrared thermographic inspection and physical examination of components;
- Include an annual switchboard inspection program in your computer-based maintenance planning system;
- Revise your procedures for accepting completed shipboard maintenance and repair work performed by outside contractors to verify that work has been done properly;
- 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;
- 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