March 22, 2006

Canadian ferry sinks, 99 people rescued

By Allan Dowd

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - A ferry carrying at
least 99 people sank in the early hours of Wednesday off
Canada's rugged Pacific Coast, but officials said they believe
everyone was evacuated by lifeboat and rescued.

The Queen of the North was believed to have struck a rock
at about 12:43 a.m. (2043 GMT) near Gil Island, about 75 miles
south of Prince Rupert as it sailed though the Inside Passage
on the northwest coast of British Columbia.

Passengers described being jolted awake by a loud noise,
followed by the ship's alarm, and then watching from lifeboats
in rough water as the 125-meter (410-foot) ship disappeared
into the water.

"It didn't seem like too much of a big bump to me. The next
thing you know, everything is on the floor," rescued passenger
Jill Lawrence told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Ninety-nine passengers and crew escaped the stricken vessel
but there was concern that two people could be missing. The two
had made reservations for the 15-hour trip from Prince Rupert
to Port Hardy, but may not have boarded the vessel.

Boats continued to search the area of the accident, where a
fuel slick could be seen on the water.

Residents of the remote aboriginal village of Hartley Bay,
heard the Queen of the North's distress call and quickly sent
boats to the scene. Victims were given blankets and food 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, Search and Rescue Center.

The ferry, which had a capacity for 700 passengers and 115
vehicles, 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 ship, the light icebreaker Sir
Wilfrid 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 was being investigated, but it was believed that the
ferry hit a submerged rock in a narrow passage of the coastal

"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 to be rough in the area of the
accident, but it was unclear if weather played a role in the

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 interview.

B.C. Ferries ships serve as an extension of the province's
highway system and are a vital transportation link in the
coastal region.

The Queen of the North was built in Germany in 1969 and
received a major overhaul in 2001.

(Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa)