VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Mar 24 (Reuters) Mystery surrounded the fate of two people on Thursday who disappeared and are now feared dead after an ocean-going ferry sank when it smashed onto a rocky island on Canada's Pacific coast.
Police have begun a missing persons investigation for the couple, whom witnesses reported seeing on shore with the 99 others rescued from the ferry Queen of the North on Wednesday, but who have not been heard from since.
BC Ferries now fears those witness 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 Gil Island shortly after midnight local time, about 75 miles (120 km) south of Prince Rupert, on a trip down the Inside Passage on the northwest coast of British Columbia.
The ship, which may have been using a new auto-pilot system, was traveling at about 19 knots (22 mph) when it crashed, ferry officials said yesterday.
Police searched the island and boats scanned the water, and there was no evidence the couple found their way home from Hartley Bay -- the remote aboriginal fishing village whose residents helped rescue survivors.
''The logical conclusion is that they may well be on the ship,'' said David Hahn, president of the provincial ferry operator, adding the witnesses may have been overcome by the trauma.
The ship is submerged in about 1,200 feet of water, so the search for victims and clues to what caused the accident will require divers or remote-controlled equipment, officials said.
The ship was on a 15-hour journey from Prince Rupert, which is near the southern tip of the Alaska panhandle, to Port Hardy on the northern end of Vancouver Island.
The wilderness of the Inside Passage is viewed by thousands of tourists every summer on cruise ships that run from Vancouver and Seattle to Alaska.
Environmental crews were monitoring a fuel spill from the 410-foot (125-metre) ship, which was carrying 57,200 gallons (220,000 liters) of No. 2 diesel and 5,200 gallons (20,000 liters) of light oil, plus hydraulic oil. There were also 16 vehicles on the ferry.
The fuel leaking from the wreck has spread over a large area, but winds have kept it from harming birds or fouling the shore. Booms are protecting areas such as a local village's clam beds, the Canadian Coast Guard said.
REUTERS CH SP1000