Small fire aboard state ferry sends 11 to Wrangell hospital for evaluation

a docked ferry
The M/V Columbia in Wrangell on Aug. 23, 2023. (Sage Smiley/KSTK)

Looking at the ferry Columbia from the shore in Wrangell at about 11:45 a.m. on Wednesday, nothing seemed amiss. That is, except that the 418-foot ferry wasn’t supposed to be in Wrangell at all.

The Columbia should have left for Ketchikan at 6:15 a.m. that morning, but a small overnight fire in its bar delayed the ship. The Department of Transportation said Wednesday that 11 people were taken off the ferry to be medically evaluated after the fire.

Steven Harrison is a crew member on the Columbia. He said his fire response team heard a general alarm at 3:15 a.m.

“They said that it was not a drill, which is pretty obvious at 3:15,” he said. “We all donned our fire suits, put on our oxygen tanks and went on oxygen because the ship was filling up with smoke.”

By the time Harrison got to the fire, he said it had already been mostly extinguished by another crew member, but his team sprayed down the smoldering bar.

“There’s a lot of dirt and debris and ashes in the bar mixed with the ABC fire extinguisher stuff,” he said. “It’s gonna take us a while to clean up.”

Harrison said his six-person fire team was using supplemental oxygen, which helped them avoid the effects of smoke inhalation. But other crew and passengers felt the effects.

Shannon McCarthy is a spokesperson for Alaska’s Department of Transportation, which oversees the ferry system.

“The crew reacted pretty quickly, but out of an abundance of caution, they wanted to make sure that anyone that was nearby got seen for smoke inhalation,” she said.

McCarthy said 11 people total were evaluated: nine passengers and two crew members.

Emergency medical services in Wrangell transported the passengers and crew to the local hospital for treatment. All of the patients had been treated and released from the Wrangell Medical Center by early afternoon, according to a hospital spokesperson. And McCarthy confirmed Wednesday afternoon that all 11 re-boarded the ship and continued south.

Harrison said he thinks the fire didn’t cause any serious damage to the ship.

“We lost 10 cases of Alaska[n] white beer,” he said. “Honestly, that’s the extent of the damage.”

It’s not clear how the fire started. Harrison said the working theory is that an ice machine in the bar area started the fire.

“We’re assuming some sort of electrical malfunction, or maybe it was just too close to the cardboard cases of beer,” Harrison said.

The Columbia came back into regular service on the Alaska Marine Highway in mid-February, after being docked for three years as a cost-saving measure. The 49-year-old ship is the largest of the marine highway’s four mainline ferries, serving larger communities with cabins and berths for longer journeys.

The Columbia was briefly tied up for repairs earlier this summer, after crew noticed issues with one of its thrusters and leaking pipes in the ship’s fire suppression system. It’s not the only ferry that’s experienced mechanical issues recently — the Hubbard was waylaid by generator issues earlier this month.

The Alaska Marine Highway is running thin, with five of its nine ferries in service. The Kennicott, Tazlina and Matanuska are in layup at the boatyard in Ketchikan, and the Lituya is in overhaul until Thursday.

Harrison said he’s proud of the response of the Columbia crew and fire team.

“It proved to us that we actually could respond and do what we need to do in the amount of time that we needed to do it,” Harrison said. “It was a great drill. I mean, it was a live-fire drill, basically.”

The Columbia headed south out of Wrangell just after noon on Wednesday, after passengers and crew returned from receiving treatment. DOT doesn’t expect the fire to cause any delay to the ship’s schedule. It’s expected to arrive in Bellingham on Friday morning.

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