March 23, 2006

Couple feared dead in sinking of Canadian ferry

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Mystery surrounded
the fate of two people on Thursday who went missing and are now
feared dead after an ocean-going ferry sank when it strayed
onto the rocks on Canada's Pacific coast.

Police have begun a missing-persons investigation for the
couple, who witnesses reported they saw on shore with the other
99 people rescued from the ferry Queen of the North on
Wednesday, but have not been seen since.

BC Ferries now fears those reports were wrong and that the
couple from the town of 100 Mile House, British Columbia, went
down with the ship.

The Queen of the North is believed to have gone off course
and struck a rock shortly after midnight local time, about 75
miles south of Prince Rupert, on a trip down the Inside Passage
on the northwest coast of British Columbia.

Police searched an island near the wreck and boats scanned
the water on Wednesday, and there was no evidence the couple
found their own transportation home from Hartley Bay -- the
remote aboriginal fishing village that helped rescue survivors.

"I think we're left with one conclusion, which is that we
now have to begin the very difficult process of finding if they
are on the ship, " BC Ferries President David Hahn told CKNW
radio in Vancouver.

"I would have to believe there is no other place for them
to be at this time," Hahn said.

Hahn said the passengers who reported seeing the couple in
Hartley Bay may have made a mistake because of the trauma of
the accident in the early morning darkness

Investigators are trying to determine what caused the ship
to veer off course on its scheduled 15-hour journey from Prince
Rupert, which is near the southern tip of the Alaska panhandle,
to Port Hardy on northern end of Vancouver Island.

The rugged wilderness of the Inside Passage is viewed by
thousands of tourists every summer on cruise ships that run
from Vancouver and Seattle to Alaska.

On Thursday, environmental crews were trying to contain a
fuel spill from the 410-foot (125-meter) ship, which
disappeared completely below the water, and the 16 vehicles
that were on board.

The sinking of the Queen of the North is also causing
economic concern for communities along the coast and on the
Queen Charlotte Islands, which depend on ferries for
transportation and to deliver most supplies.

A replacement vessel was undergoing several weeks of
scheduled repairs at the time of the accident, but is now being
rushed back into service.

The sinking happened on same day the province was scheduled
to approve funding to replace the Queen of the North, which was
built in 1969 and has a hull design that is considered less
safe by modern shipbuilding standards.