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Investigation: Strong currents blamed for Alaska ferry crash into dock

Ben Anderson

The Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT) has concluded its investigation of the May 7 crash of the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry M/V Matanuska into a dock in the Southeast Alaska community of Petersburg.

According to a DOT press release, the fault lay with the captain of the vessel, who made a maneuvering error that couldn’t be corrected before the 408-foot ferry crashed into the Ocean Beauty Seafoods dock.

The DOT said that the captain was attempting to move the ferry from one current pushing the vessel toward shore into a counter current that would help it slow before arriving at the ferry terminal. The conflicting currents prevented the vessel from completing its turn toward the terminal.

“The ship’s captain did not recognize this maneuvering error with enough time available to avoid the collision,” the investigation found. “However, the ferry crew was able to significantly reduce the speed of the vessel and minimize the force with which the ferry struck the dock.”

The ferry suffered some dents and scrapes, but wasn’t substantially damaged. It was cleared to continue on its route shortly after the accident. An Ocean Beauty manager told the Associated Press that repairing the damage to the dock is estimated to cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Crew members underwent post-accident drug testing, and all results came back negative. The captain in charge of the ship has been with the Alaska Marine Highway System for 29 years, and has spent 14 of them as a captain, according to Michael Neussl, deputy commissioner for marine operations with the DOT.

Department spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said the captain continued to pilot the ferry to other stops after the incident. He declined to say whether any administrative action was taken against the captain or any crew members.

Neussl said that in 28 years, the AMHS has seen only 14 other incidents like the May wreck.

A passenger aboard the ferry as it pulled into Petersburg captured the incident on tape. The bow of the Matanuska was high enough to smash into the second story of a building on the dock.

Scott Jordan, director of the Division of Risk Management for the state of Alaska, said that Ocean Beauty was still working on nailing down a number for the cost, but that the state had set aside a “reserve” of $1.2 million, based on preliminary estimates.

“Insurance companies -- and that’s how we operate here -- set aside or reserve a certain amount of funds of what they estimate it might cost to settle a claim,” Jordan said. He added that it is usually an “outside number” that takes all possible costs into account.

Ocean Beauty announced about a month after the accident that it would close down its plant for the year while repairs are completed.

Jordan said that the damage to the ferry was minimal, so there weren’t any costs calculated in association with the vessel, but they may take care of those small issues when the vessel is maintained in the fall.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com