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Cruise boat involved in accident in Alaska has ties to Clarkston

May 14, 2007 |

A luxury cruise boat that had to evacuate all its passengers early this morning near Juneau, Alaska, has ties to Clarkston and has been in similar, although less serious, situations three other times.

Crews and volunteer boats assisted in the transfer of passengers to other vessels after it ran aground, according to an Associated Press story. No injuries were reported.

The vessel, carrying 281 passengers and crew, took on water and was listing 6 degrees at the southern end of Icy Strait when the Coast Guard responded, the Associated Press reported.

Within hours the Empress of the North was heading to Juneau under its own power with an "essential crew,'' according to a news release from Majestic America Line, the boat's operator.

The Empress of the North was most recently at the Port of Clarkston on April 17 where it is the largest of the cruise boats that call. It has been a regular in the spring and fall since it was introduced in 2003 and docked in Clarkston 22 times in 2006.

Clarkston is the western-most point on a journey of about a week that originates in Portland. "We are concerned for our customer,'' said Wanda Keefer, manager of the Port of Clarkston.

The boat spends the summer in Alaska where today's accident happened.

Safety and the comfort of its passengers are the highest priority, according to a news release issued by Majestic America today. "We are working closely with the Coast Guard to undertake a full investigation and assess the condition of the vessel.''

The news release didn't indicate how seriously the Empress was damaged and calls to the cruise line weren't immediately returned.

Today's trouble is the latest in a series of situations that have interrupted cruises, but caused no critical injuries.

The most recent was a little more than a year ago when the vessel ran aground on the Columbia River near Washougal, Wash.

About 180 passengers were evacuated from the boat after winds and currents apparently forced it into a sandbar. No one was hurt. It was freed about two days later by two tugs with tides working in their favor. About 20,000 gallons of diesel fuel were removed to make it lighter and it returned to Portland, Ore., under its own power.

Two incidents took place during the boat's first year cruising.

The bottom of the vessel scraped the top of a lock gate at Ice Harbor Dam near Pasco in October 2003, after the lock master had given the captain permission to proceed. The boat was only going one or two mph at the time and no one was injured.

The 190 passengers on the Empress of the North were removed from the boat and taken to hotels in the Tri-Cities area.

The Empress of the North passed a Coast Guard inspection and was cruising again within about a week.

Repairing the lock took more than a month and cost $63,000. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used a temporary locking system to allow commercial vessels to pass during the work.

About a month later on Thanksgiving the Empress again encountered difficulties that its operator at the time, American West Steamboat Co., blamed on human error. The boat developed steering problems and collided with a bank about one mile downstream from The Dalles, Ore., and sustained minor damage.

The captain of the boat regained steering before the boat touched the bank, but it happened in a part of the river that's extremely narrow.

One passenger bruised a shoulder. A crew member fractured an elbow and another crew member suffered a minor injury. They were all treated and released from a local hospital.

The vessel didn't take on water and passengers resumed regular cruise activities.

Later operators of the Empress of the North said the accident pushed in the bow of the boat a couple of feet below the water line, but that the integrity of the boat wasn't compromised.

Still as a precaution, the operators canceled cruises in December 2003 awaiting more information about the cause of the accident.

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