Empress runs aground off Juneau

All 248 passengers aboard the paddlewheel cruise ship Empress of the North have been evacuated after it ran aground early Monday morning about 80…

All 248 passengers aboard the paddlewheel cruise ship Empress of the North have been evacuated after it ran aground early Monday morning about 80 kilometres southwest of Juneau.

No injuries were reported and all passengers will be put aboard an Alaska Highway ferry and taken to Juneau, said Petty Officer Eric Chandler with the US Coast Guard in Juneau.

The 90-metre ship ran aground near the Hanus Reef in the Lynn Canal and radioed a distress call at 3 a.m. on Monday morning, said Lieutenant Brierley Ostrander with the Juneau Coast Guard office.

Passengers evacuated the ship using life rafts and were soon rescued by several nearby fishing boats, the Coast Guard cutter Liberty, a motor lifeboat sent from Juneau and a HH-60 helicopter from Cordova, said Lt. Ostrander.

A C-130 Hercules aircraft was also dispatched to the scene.

The ship, styled to recall 19th century Russia complete with Faberge eggs, is taking on water as a result of the impact, said Lt. Ostrander.

“It is damaged, but it’s off the reef,” she said. “It’s off the rocks. I’m not sure exactly what our plan of action is but we’re definitely worried that it gets to port safely and that there’s no environmental impact.”

The Coast Guard is being joined by other US agencies to contain any potential spillage, but there is not believed to be any fuel leaking from the ship, said Lt. Ostrander.

The 33-person crew is still onboard assessing the damage.

The Empress remains under its own power, but will be towed into Juneau’s harbour for safety reasons, said PO Chandler.

Juneau is setting up an emergency response centre to help the stranded passengers, he said.

The ship hit rocks in a strait that is about five kilometres wide.

When rescue crews arrived at the scene, the seas and weather were calm, said Lt. Ostrander.

The Empress is owned and operated by Majestic America Line of Seattle, Washington.

The diesel-powered ship has room for 223 passengers and 81 crew, according to the company’s website.

The Coast Guard hasn’t started an investigation yet, but usually investigates when a boat is evacuated, said PO Chandler.

Officials with Majestic America were contacted but did not return phone calls before press time.

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