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Seattle cruise ship runs aground in Alaska

May 14, 2007 |

Coast Guard and civilian vessels banded together to successfully rescue more than 300 people from a Seattle-based cruise ship that ran aground early Monday.

"There is a breach in the hull. It is on the rocks," said Petty Officer Eric Chandler at the Coast Guard base in Kodiak.

The Empress of the North, carrying 281 passengers and a crew of 84, was listing 6 degrees after hitting Hanus Rock at the southern end of the strait, 49 miles west of Juneau, Coast Guard officials said.

The Coast Guard immediately dispatched two helicopters to the scene after receiving an emergency radio message at 12:35 a.m. Alaska Daylight Time from the ship, operated by Seattle-based Majestic America Line, Petty Officer Christopher D. McLaughlin said.

The 110-foot Coast Guard cutter Liberty, the Spirit of Columbia cruise ship, and several other private vessels were taking on passengers from the damaged Empress of the North.

"Many Good Samaritan boats on scene are taking off passengers," McLaughlin said. "The fishing vessels Evening Star and Willow were able to moor up to the cruise ship and 33 passengers transferred from the Empress of the North to the Evening Star and 12 passengers to the Willow."

By daybreak those remaining were being taken aboard the Spirit of Columbia, a smaller vessel operated by Cruise West of Seattle, McLaughlin said.

All of the passengers were to be returned to Juneau, said Ann Marie Ricard, a spokeswoman for Majestic America Line. The City of Juneau was preparing temporary emergency housing for any passengers requiring it, Chandler said.

There were no reports of injury, nor was there any immediate word on damage, and McLaughlin said the reason for the grounding was unclear.

Chandler said the vessel was taking on water. Still, he said, rescuers had some time to work. The Empress of the North has a double-hull design, making it safer and more able to withstand such an accident. And, he added, that with the tide on the way out, the vessel was not in any immediate danger of sinking.

"It's sitting on rocks," Chandler said.

The $50 million cruise ship is billed by Majestic America site as a "newly built" sternwheeler with a 24-hour bar and grill, a crew of 84, 112 staterooms for 223 passengers and gets most of its propulsion from a three-story paddlewheel.

Ricard said the Empress of the North was in the first day of a seven-day cruise of the Inside Passage when the accident happened.

She did not have any information on what caused the accident.

The ship, built by Nichols Bros. Boat Builders, is billed by the company as the only overnight sternwheeler vessel in use on Alaskan cruises. The vessel spends the winter carrying passengers along the Columbia, Snake and Willamette rivers. At least twice, it has run aground along the Columbia River, most recently in March 2006.

It began offering cruises in Alaska's Inside Passage in 2003, the first paddlewheel ship to do so in more than a century.

Just two weeks ago, the Empress of the North stopped in Seattle and took passengers for a cruise to Alaska, Ricard said.

Sunday, it took on passengers in Juneau for its Inside Passage cruise, which was to have wrapped up Saturday.

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