March 22, 2006

Canada ferry sinks, all 99 people on board escape

By Allan Dowd

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - A ferry carrying
nearly 100 people sank in the early hours of Wednesday off
Canada's rugged Pacific Coast, but everyone on board was
evacuated by lifeboat and rescued.

The Queen of the North was believed to have struck a rock
at about 12:43 a.m. PST near Gil Island, about 75 miles south
of Prince Rupert as it sailed though the Inside Passage on the
northwest coast of British Columbia.

All 99 passengers and crew escaped the stricken vessel,
which is now completely submerged, said government-owned BC
Ferries Corp., which operates the province's fleet of ferries,
which serve as a vital transport link in the region.

"We were very fortunate in this case. Fate was smiling upon
everybody today," Canadian Forces Major Chuck Grenkow, who
assisted in the rescue operation, told Canadian Broadcasting

The passengers were taken to the isolated aboriginal
village of Hartley Bay, which had sent boats to help with the
rescue. Residents provided blankets and food to the victims as
they were brought to shore.

No serious injuries were reported, but 11 people were
transported by helicopter to a Prince Rupert hospital to be
treated for stress and minor injuries, according to the
Victoria, British Columbia, Rescue Center.

Initial officials reports said 102 people were on board the
ship, which is capable of holding up to 700 people and 115
cars. It was on a routine 15-hour journey from Prince Rupert to
Port Hardy, near the northern tip of Vancouver Island.

Officials said all aboard the ship were accounted for, but
because of confusion over the number of passengers, vessels
continued to search after daybreak to make sure nobody was left
behind in the water.

The ferry sank along a popular route for cruise ships that
travel the coast from Vancouver and Seattle to Alaska each
summer, carrying thousands of tourists.

A Canadian Coast Guard boat, the Sir Wilfred Laurier, was
on patrol in the area and responded to the ferry's distress
call, reaching the scene at about 2:15 a.m., officials said.

B.C. Ferries president David Hahn said the cause of the
accident is being investigated, but it was believed that the
ferry hit a rock.

"It is impossible for me to conjecture why it ended up
where it did," Hahn told reporters outside the ferry service's
headquarters in the British Columbia capital of Victoria.

The water was reported rough in the area of the accident,
but it was unclear if weather played a role in the accident.

Investigators from the Transportation Safety Board of
Canada are heading to the scene.

British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell defended the
province's ferry fleet, although he acknowledged that the Queen
of the North was one of the fleet's older vessels, and was
being eyed for replacement because it only had a single hull.

"The fleet is safe. Not only is the fleet safe, but it is
manned by professional crews that are trained in safety,"
Campbell said in a radio station interview.

The ship was built in 1969 and received a major overhaul in

(Additional reporting by David Ljunggren)