March 22, 2006

CORRECTED: Passengers, crew rescued as ferry sinks off Canada

Please read in third paragraph. Sylvia Rice... instead of
Sylvia Wright. Corrects last name.

A corrected version follows.

By Allan Dowd

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - A ferry carrying
about 100 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 12:25 a.m. Pacific Time (0825 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. "Anything like that, and you know
something is wrong," Sylvia Rice, a vacationer from England,
told reporters in Prince Rupert.

The passengers said they watched from lifeboats in rough
water as the 125-meter (410-foot) ship went down.

Officials said 99 passengers and crew are known to have
escaped the stricken vessel but there was confusion about the
fate of two people. After the night-time rescue, boats did a
daylight search of the area where a fuel slick could be seen on
the water.

The two may not have boarded the ship as had been thought,
or may have obtained transportation home before a final rescue
count was made, so police will carry out a missing-persons
investigation, rescue officials and B.C. Ferries said.

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 with
minor ailments, 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.

The ship was a 15-hour trip from Prince Rupert to Port
Hardy, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island.

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
waterway and may have gone off course.

"It is impossible for me to conjecture why it ended up
where it did," Hahn told reporters.

Investigators from the Transportation Safety Board of
Canada are heading to the scene, where an oil pollution
emergency has also been declared because of fuel leaking from
the ship and the vehicles it was carrying.

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)