Passengers rescued as ferry sinks off Canada
VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Mar 23: A ferry carrying about 100 people sank after it strayed off course in the early morning darkness on Canada's rugged Pacific Coast yesterday, but officials believe everyone was rescued safely.
The Queen of the North apparently struck a submerged rock about 1335 hrs (IST) near Gil Island, about 75 miles (120 km) 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 410-foot (125-metre) ship went down, with some likening the ship's final moments to descriptions of the sinking of the Titanic.
Officials said 99 people were known to have escaped the stricken vessel but there was confusion about the fate of two people. They are believed to have survived the sinking but were unaccounted for in the final count of passengers.
''BC Ferries has unconfirmed reports that the two passengers disembarked from the rescue vessels at Hartley Bay and found their own transportation back to Prince Rupert,'' the company said, adding police were investigating it as a missing persons' case.
Residents of Hartley Bay, a remote aboriginal village of about 200 people, heard the ferry's distress call and 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 and later released.
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.
'SEVERELY OFF COURSE' The ship was on a 15-hour trip from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island when it apparently veered off course in a relatively narrow passage area.
''It was fairly severely off course,'' BC Ferries President David Hahn told reporters. He declined to speculate what might have caused the problem.
Investigators from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada are heading to the scene, where an oil pollution emergency has been declared because of fuel leaking from the submerged ship and the vehicles it was carrying.
The Canadian Coast Guard ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier was on patrol in the area and was able to reach the scene quickly to assist the rescue. It also transported survivors back to Prince Rupert where they greeted by British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell and other officials.
Campbell defended the province's ferry fleet, although he acknowledged the Queen of the North, built in 1969, was one of the fleet's older vessels and being eyed for replacement because of a hull design that is considered less safe by modern shipbuilding standards.
''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.
The provincial ferries serve as an extension of the province's highway system and are a vital transportation link in the coastal region.